In December 2019, a long-pending and critical evolutionary process of structural reforms in defence was unleashed by the Narendra Modi government. It was a commendable PMO-driven initiative. It encompassed the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff, triple hatted as military adviser to the defence minister, the permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and the head of the newly created Department of Military Affairs. Notably, the position has mandated the CDS to establish the Theatre/Joint Commands.
The fact that defence reforms were required to be driven by the PMO reflects the platitude that India requires a strong PMO to override narrow interests of individual central ministries and state governments in order to serve national objectives. It is never the ideal solution, but has been found to be an effective method in a diverse and complex country inhabited by a plethora of domestic power centres. Post-Kargil, the creation of the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), directly under the PMO to act as the think tank for it, has strengthened its ability for policy formulation. However, the downside is the human proclivity to pander to perceived desires of strong prime ministers. Such a possibility will be perennial. In the case of this round of defence reforms under the Modi government, national security interests seem to be the predominant driver.
The implementation of the structural reforms in the Ministry of Defence is now a central challenge and a humungous one. Reforms have to be undertaken under the shadows of deepening geopolitical threats and major constraints in financial resources. It is also bereft of political guidance from a National Security Strategy, about which the less said the better. With time and financial resources at a premium, the envisaged defence reforms cannot be left only to the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to execute. It requires political oversight and patronage like never before in India’s history. Also, mere political acumen of the defence minister is insufficient to steer the reforms.
Why India needs a defence minister with military background
Political acumen now needs sufficient understanding of military matters, preferably along with comprehension of public finances and dynamics of the defence industrial base. The reforms call for choices to be made that has major long-term consequences. Balancing the creation of continental and maritime power is a prime example. This demands knowledge of hard power and its envisaged utility towards achieving political objectives in multiple strategic contexts including the nuclear one. The manifold increase in technological complexity leaves no room for informed choices except through a knowledge base derived from military experience.
It is no coincidence that political heads of several defence ministries across the world are increasingly those who have worn uniform and gained experience in combat. Currently, the US, Russia, China and the UK, apart from several other countries, have persons with military background as defence ministers. Himmatsinhji in the first Nehru cabinet and Jaswant Singh with a very short stint in the Vajpayee cabinet have been two persons with military background who have tenanted the MoD. Both were appointed more for their political skills and not so much due to military experience.
It is perhaps time now for India to have a politician with a military background to head the Ministry of Defence. Such a move is highly desirable and there are various reasons why.
The primary reason is India’s growing security concerns. The threat from China is growing for the first time, in both continental and maritime domains. A possible collusion with Pakistan is a distinct possibility and must be factored in for defence preparations, the pace of which is being propelled and shaped by global geopolitical tensions. There is no time to waste. Preparations demand additional fiscal resources that may not easily be provided by a Covid-19-hit economy with the second wave currently running seemingly out of control. For sure, the economic impact will be tremendous. A defence minister with a military background could be extremely useful to mastermind the direction and pace of military preparations in such an environment even while steering reforms.
The primary framework of defence-related decision making in the MoD is about balancing the weight of the strategic objectives with the fiscal support and other means available. This is an art that requires a blend of the political and the military aspects in multifaceted strategic contexts. Obviously, knowledge of both sides is necessary and cannot possibly be easy for full-time politicians who have never worn a uniform. At the defence minister’s level, deciding which decision is to be left to the military and what requires a higher perspective of the defence ministry and PMO is key to formulation of actions required. The situation is admittedly worsened by sub-optimum cooperation between the Services and is also one of the major reasons necessitating the reforms. To expect, that since the political leadership has decided, it can be left to the military to take things forward without informed political oversight and patronage, would be a mistake.
A calculated risk
Agreeably, this can also lead to militarisation of our democracy and is not an issue that can be ignored. The lessons of pre-1962 politicisation of the military under Krishna Menon and its implications must serve as a grim reminder. The suggested predominant role of the military in the MoD must be seen as a contingent measure that is temporary and is cognisant of the dangers of military-specific thinking in statecraft. A strong PMO, if backed by an NSCS with intellectual integrity, could exercise sufficient oversight over the reform process, provide valuable strategic national-level insights and push for speedy resources provision. Such a defence minister might be a political lightweight in terms of political popularity. What would matter is the knowledge base they would bring to the discussions held at the Cabinet Committee on Security, the National Security Council, and all other forums national and international.
In any case, the defence minister would have to be politically chosen and has to be someone who enjoys the complete confidence of the PM. Being a political appointment, non-performance can be quickly penalised by depriving the holder of that portfolio. Hence, the PM’s control remains paramount. The major danger and an all-weather threat will be of the military colluding with the PMO for domestic political gains. There is no easy answer to this except that the current external and internal health situations must, for all national security purposes, be treated as sufficiently challenging, to warrant such risk-taking.
India has plenty of talent and intellectual horsepower. After ensuring careful scrutiny, finding a person who acceptably fits the defence minister’s qualifying requirements should not be difficult. But this is a major political decision that only the PM can make. The choice has to weigh, greater military effectiveness with the possible militarisation of the polity. Hopefully, the danger of militarisation will remain fettered as long as a strong PMO never uses the military to score domestic political points. If this principle is embraced and maintained, the danger of militarisation is reduced substantially. Given the security environment that is juxtaposed with the misgivings on militarisation, the decision will depend on the answer to the query, will the Indian military ever join hands with politicians to undermine democracy?
According to me – having spent 40 years in uniform – the risk can be taken. After all, the apolitical military vaccine is administered regularly through an institutional culture that the Indian military is proud of. Admittedly, one may be out of date in sensing contemporary reality, but my bet is on the military.
The time is ripe for the change and it may help better address both the major contemporary threats to India – security and health. Health poses the immediate emergency. The health minister must at least take moral responsibility for failure. The politically and administratively proven skills of the current defence minister should be deployed to face the grave and immediate health threat, and the PM can choose any suitable person with a politico-military experience for defence. This move of the ministerial dice is imperative in national interest.
Lt Gen Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru, and former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)
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