The many security follies of the Narendra Modi government in 2018.
The year 2018 was annus horribilis for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s NDA government. Even before the recent state elections shattered the BJP’s aura of invincibility, the government’s ineptitude in policy-making and recklessness in institutional matters was obvious to anyone who cared to see. These tendencies were pronounced in the management of national security.
The government’s dismal record in national security is evident from its attempt to burnish its credentials by celebrating the ‘surgical strikes’ conducted two years ago.
However, here are five related trends in 2018 that starkly reminded us of the hollowness of these claims.
Show me the money
First, for all the talk of military modernisation, the government has literally failed to put its money where its mouth is. The defence budget for 2018-19 was 1.49 per cent of the GDP. Including the cost of pensions, the ministry of defence’s overall budget stood at 2.2 per cent of the GDP. In fact, the allocation for pensions grew at 27 per cent over the previous year, while capital expenditure rose only by 9 per cent.
Manpower costs now account for almost 70 per cent of the overall defence budget. This flows from the grant of One Rank One Pension in 2015 and the implementation of the 7th Pay Commission the next year. But it also is a direct consequence of the government’s decision to do nothing to raise capital expenditure for any meaningful military modernisation. It is hardly surprising that senior military officers, including the vice chief of the Army, bluntly told the parliamentary standing committee on defence about the glaring deficiencies in equipment and holdings.
Nor is it surprising that the estimates committee led by a senior BJP MP has excoriated the government for its complacency on this front.
Transforming the military
Second, the government made no moves towards force transformation. This is imperative, in the first instance, to pare down the costs of pay and pensions in the years ahead. The unaffordable personnel costs of a permanent service military are blindingly obvious, yet the government has made no efforts to rethink the short service commission schemes. As things stand, these are in some ways even less attractive than they were in the past. Reconfiguring the terms of service, as well as upgrading opportunities for education and entrepreneurship after completion of service, are essential to achieving force transformation. If the government is discussing any of this, it is perhaps their best-kept secret.
In the absence of such thinking, the army is considering its own ways of pruning manpower. This is a necessary step, but it should have been part of a larger exercise initiated by the government on force transformation. Such an exercise would begin by asking some tough questions about the role and readiness of the three services in future conflicts, and then consider how to shift the balance of allocations between and within them.
Twenty years after overt nuclearisation does anyone really believe that the three strike corps of the Army can indeed undertake deep offensive thrusts inside Pakistan under any conceivable strategic context? By contrast, the allocation for the Navy and Air Force has been dropping in relative terms even as we are proclaiming our intent to be a ‘net security provider’ in the Indo-Pacific. The government claims that India will be a ‘leading power’. At this rate, we will end up being seen as a misleading power.
A Rafale short-circuit
Third, the creation of a strong defence industrial base remains a pipe-dream. The government’s handling of the Rafale deal has put paid to the idea of creating a vibrant ecosystem comprising the private sector as well as the defence public sector undertakings. At a minimum, by short-circuiting the process of procurement, the government has made the bureaucracy rather wary of big-ticket defence acquisitions. The perception of cronyism will also influence the private sector’s participation in this domain.
Weakening the institutional structures
Fourth, the government has yet to undertake serious reforms of the structures of national security management. What’s worse, it has weakened and complicated the existing ones. The Navy Chief has stated that “the three services have agreed on a permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. The proposal is with the Ministry of Defence.” The idea of a Chief of Defence Staff, who would be the single-point military advisor to the government, is apparently out of the window. A fixed-term chairman of the chiefs of staff committee is seen as a half-way house solution that might be acceptable to the political leadership. But the reality is that even this proposal has been on the table for a while now and the government has shown no inclination to proceed.
Instead of moving towards rationalisation by closer integration of civilian and military structures, the government has gone for greater concentration of power under the national security advisor. The new Defence Planning Committee under the NSA is meant to foster comprehensive and integrated planning on defence. But in reality, this body—consisting of no fewer than four sub-committees—only adds another bureaucratic layer of dubious value to a process that badly needs revivification. According such prominence to the NSA also effectively undermines the position of the defence minister on these issues. But then, the position of the defence minister doesn’t seem to have mattered much to this government: think only of Manohar Parrikar’s exit.
China on the horizon
Finally, the upshot of all this is our floundering response to the most serious challenges on the horizon. A year after the standoff with Chinese forces in Doklam, it is clear that China is undertaking a major upgradation of its military capabilities and readiness in the Tibetan plateau, while New Delhi is merely reacting to their moves.
The government’s efforts to impart of a degree of diplomatic stability in our relations with China is sensible. But this has to be backstopped by the capability to uphold our security interests. The drift in security policy-making suggests the erosion of our military capabilities, especially in the medium-term. Unfortunately, as elections loom, we can expect nothing more than propaganda on ‘surgical strikes’.
Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research. Views expressed are personal.