Politicians must be made to understand that defence expenditure is like an insurance premium on national security, so defence budget needs to be boosted.
The Army’s submission to the parliamentary standing committee on defence has brought public attention momentarily back to the narrative of “our defence budget is inadequate”. Sage analysts made the point that with so much of our defence equipment falling into the vintage category, India is certainly in no position to fight the two-front war that the armed forces have been directed to prepare for.
The question is: who thinks India will fight a two-front war?
Defence officers and security analysts do, as they should. The political leadership – past, present and, I dare say, future prime ministers – do not. In fact, going by their actions, you can conclude that they do not think national security is a big problem at all. Over and above the purely political task of winning elections and staying in power, the public issues they are more concerned about are jobs, subsidies and the implementation of social programmes. Serious politicians across the board agree that achieving high economic growth is the primary national interest.
They believe the borders are reasonably secure, insurgencies are reasonably under control and India is, by and large, safe. Which is why prime ministers don’t meet the service chiefs regularly, care little about foreign intelligence reports, but pay attention to the political parts of domestic intelligence briefings.
At this point, if you are a defence officer or a security analyst, you are likely to say that the political leaders “don’t get it”. You are likely to look down on politicians for caring more about the next election than about the two-front war that you are concerned about.
But seriously, it is those who believe a person can get to the top of the political heap by being insensitive to real issues that need a strong reality check. P.V. Narasimha Rao, H.D. Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi might have different political styles and ideological persuasions, but every single one of them packed an astute, political sense of national priorities. Looking at the view from the very top, it is unlikely that they saw or see defence and national security as something to lose sleep over.
If Prime Minister Modi does not seem to be overly concerned about a potentially turbulent summer in Kashmir, firing across the Line of Control and Chinese moves in the Himalayas, it’s perhaps because he assesses them to be less worrisome than outside security analysts do.
That’s actually good news. If a leader who rose to office in a highly-competitive democracy believes that the country is reasonably safe, we should be relieved, not upset. Revealed preference — from tepid increases in defence expenditure to inattention to military reform — suggests that India is safer and more secure than what the strategic community believes.
No prime minister even remotely thinks of a two-front war once he leaves the annual military commanders’ conference. And because he has the power to do something about it, is quite likely to avoid getting close to a war-like situation on even half-a-front. Even under extreme provocation, the Vajpayee government limited Kargil and squibbed Parakram. After 26/11, the UPA government didn’t strike at Pakistan. After Pathankot, the “surgical strikes” that the Modi government ordered assuaged domestic politics without taking us remotely closer to war. At Doklam, both India and China were careful not to contain the military situation that eventually de-escalated without a shot being fired. The Modi government did not even intervene in the Maldives, where a military operation could have taken place at relatively very low risk.
If we watch what successive Indian governments have done — as opposed to believing what they say — we reach the simple conclusion that our political leaders, in their wisdom, do not believe a two-front war is likely or inevitable. Plus, they have the power and instruments to avoid it. Plus, they understand enough about nuclear weapons to know that it’s wise to steer clear of war.
Rejoice, for all is well. There is, however, a problem. Because political leaders aren’t too concerned about national security, our military capacity is falling short of what might be necessary to defend ourselves against potential threats in the future. Frequently, military officials and analysts try to draw attention to defence needs by showing how India is underprepared for a two-front war right now. But the prime minister doesn’t think this will come to pass, so he probably privately rolls his eyes when he hears this. It’s easier for him to use diplomacy to avoid getting into a situation that could escalate to a war, than invest political capital in military modernisation. The ghost of Bofors still haunts New Delhi.
Those of us who work on strategic issues must recognise that India is more secure than we fear, and that our top political leaders are smarter than we are willing to concede. This means trying to scare the government to allocate more money for defence is likely to fail, as it usually does. In fact, we are in an era where public outcry over a genuine national security lacuna can easily be addressed through television programmes and social media hashtags.
So we need a new, different way of making the case for defence reform and bigger defence budgets. One way forward would be to impress on the political system that defence expenditure is like an insurance premium on national security — that it is best to buy insurance when we are young and healthy. You buy additional insurance for additional risks that might arise in the future. You must do whatever you can to stay healthy, but get adequate insurance to cover you in case something bad happens.
Likewise, instead of talking up a two-front, or a two-and-a-half front war, it might be better to persuade the political leadership to insure against a list of specific future risks. Including pre-existing conditions.
Nitin Pai is director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy.