Last week, the new Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, announced the first Union Budget for the new term of the BJP-led central government that took office following a landslide re-election victory in the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections. Their national campaign was strongly anchored in national security, particularly in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack and India’s retaliatory strikes in Balakot, which Narendra Modi successfully packaged and sold (particularly in the Hindi heartland) during the elections as proof of his and his party’s credentials as the most muscular protectors of India’s national interest.
But for all the government’s sloganeering during the elections, frequent invocations of dialogues from war movies and wanton appropriation of the armed forces for electoral ends – with complete disregard for their sacrosanct neutrality and their status above the political fray – the message that was projected in the Budget underwhelms. After all, for a Budget that began with thanking the people of the country for validating the BJP’s message on national security (but offered no serious mention of the needs of the men and women in uniform), the actual allocations offer little cheer to the defence sector. If anything, the numbers raise worrying questions about the support the government intends to offer to our armed forces towards ensuring they meet the challenging and complex requirements of India’s national security.
In her address, Nirmala Sitharaman announced an overall allocation of Rs 4.31 lakh crore for the defence sector, a figure that was 0.01 per cent higher than what was announced in the Interim Budget presented in February.
Of this, it is true that allocations for ‘defence expenditure’ (what is left after accounting for salaries, pensions and miscellaneous civil expenditure – which accounts for about 60 per cent of the expenditure, including pending arrears of over Rs 10,795 crore in OROP payments) have crossed the Rs 3 lakh crore-mark. This news was announced amid great fanfare and thumping of desks among the BJP benches in Parliament.
What the figure belies, however, is that the current allocation for ‘defence expenditure’ represents merely a 6.87 per cent increase from last year’s allocation of Rs 2.98 lakh crore, and only 1.45 per cent of the country’s GDP, the lowest since the 1962 war.
Even with the current allocation (once adjusted for inflation), many defence experts have pointed out that the increase is insufficient to meet the urgent modernisation requirements of the armed forces.
As a report from the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis highlights, the fiscal strain on the armed forces is currently so high that they have not even managed to fully pay for existing modernisation commitments. It has been projected that in the recently concluded fiscal year 2018-19, against a pending requirement of Rs 1.10 lakh crore for ‘Committed Liabilities’, the total shortfall was an alarming Rs 67,363 crore, or roughly 48 per cent of the overall liability. Further, for the same period, based on the allocations, the three wings of the armed forces (excluding other departments like the DRDO) jointly projected a shortfall of Rs 1.12 lakh crore, which works out to roughly 30 per cent of their total requirement. The Budget, in other words, denies the armed forces a third of what they need.
It is all very well for the finance minister to begin her speech by talking about the importance of national security and the defence minister to repeatedly point out that financial constraints will not affect capacity building, but the paltry allocation and the lack of mention in the Budget address really question the intentions of this government. They can gain applause by asking “where’s the josh?” But the time has come to respond with “where’s the money?”
The implications of a shortfall in defence allocation for our national security are many, and worrying.
Earlier, in January this year, the government was rapped on the knuckles by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, which pointed out that the funds for modernisation of the Army were inadequate to make payments of nearly Rs 30,000 crore, earmarked for 125 ongoing schemes, emergency procurement of weapons for a 10-day intense war, and ordnance requirements. Pushed to a corner, the ministry, in its response to the committee, admitted: “This Ministry is bound by the budgetary ceilings conveyed by the Ministry of Finance. The reduced allocations were passed on uniformly to all the services”. So, defence is favoured when it comes to rhetoric, and treated as badly as other ministries when cost-cutting is done.
Even as recently as the week prior to the Budget, the Navy strongly urged Nirmala Sitharaman, who served as the defence minister in the previous innings of the government, to factor in the force’s upcoming ambitious expansion and modernisation plans while deciding allocation. But given the numbers in the Budget, it appears the clamour has fallen on deaf ears. The sad thing is that even in our own backwaters – the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf – a dozen other navies have a more significant and regular presence than the Indian Navy. We just don’t have the ships.
We expect our armed forces to offer ‘punitive’ deterrence against Pakistan and ‘credible’ deterrence against China, but what is the government doing to aid and assist our forces in maintaining the requirements of national security that we thrust on them? Can it reasonably expect them to do so using Soviet-era planes (and merely 30 squadrons), a fleet of ships and submarines that are far outmatched by the Chinese, and an Army facing serious shortages and saddled with “vintage” weapons systems (68 per cent are indeed vintage, according to the Army’s own testimony to Parliament).
The answer is fairly self-evident. In an aspiring regional powerhouse, it would appear that the shrill fever-pitch rhetoric of the Modi sarkar outstrips its tangible support to our armed forces. Words are what our current leaders are good at; but they simply do not walk the talk. If ever our armed forces were called upon to back up the inflated boasts of our regime with effective military action, they would do so with a hand tied behind their back.
‘How’s the josh?’. For the defence sector, it is a joke, Sir.
The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 18 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is The Paradoxical Prime Minister. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor. Views are personal.