by Palepu Ravi Shankar
In 1971 India was a poor country with strong and modern Armed Forces. Pakistan’s peremptory airstrike was shot out of the air. In the next two weeks, we bisected the nation surgically, created Bangladesh and took 93000 POWs despite US 7th Fleet threatening intervention. In 2019, Pakistan masterminds a suicide bombing. We carry out a terrific surgical strike but are unable to shoot out the retaliatory air strike. Hey!! We are the trillion dollar fastest growing economy on earth. We want to be part of the High Table. USA was tacitly with us. Pakistan steals the narrative. Our air strikes are questioned internationally. Well. Our Air Force was not strong enough to close out a ‘diwaliya’ Pakistan. Not my view. Explicit in our Prime Minister’s public lament ‘Agar Rafale Hota’. Something seriously wrong. The most trusted institution and the last bastion of India could not get over the finish line. My reckoning. Venal politics has debilitated our edge. The Armed Forces need political resurrection – resurrection of their pride, strength, confidence and morale. Why do I say this?
My article, ” Political Crumbling of the Last Bastion “ generated far more interest than I perceived. The feedback was stunning. Firstly, senior veterans were quite clear that the Services were being kept out of the national loop. Many felt that veterans should join politics and get involved in running the nation. A ‘touch me not’ attitude would be harmful both to the nation and services. While that be so, they were also quite clear that senior service people making a beeline into politics soon after retirement largely represents ambition without useful outcome. From juniors, the feedback was understandably guarded and indirect. However, they were clear that politics should be kept out of the system. All ranks I spoke to, retired and retiring were very disappointed that those who joined politics on the strength and surge of the support received from the ex-Servicemen did not live up to expectations. The silence of the aspiring serving seniors conveyed a louder and worrying message. Promotions, prestigious appointments, post retirement second career through political patronage et al are at stake. However, there was an unanimity that the Services are now politicized to an undesirable level. The question then is to what extent has politicization pervaded?
Hues and Extent of Politicization
Procurement and Preparedness. Entry of politics into the annals of defense procurement is well documented from Bofors to Rafale. One can attribute many adjectives – corrupt, dumb, scheming, manipulative, revengeful, incompetent, conniving – to the actors in all these dramatic cases. Overall, a sense of gloom and doom pervades the defense procurement system barring a few bright sparks. Politicization of defense procurement has ensured that as our economy went up our operational preparedness has gone down. Whom do we blame when our bureaucracy, responsible to procure modern cutting-edge defense systems is manned by veterinarians / agriculturists / novelists / railwaymen / accountants? They are not only ignorant but unaccountable. They have preyed on the minds of tentative politicians to ensure that our defence procurement is in distress. A vicious circle has set in.
Promotions and Appointments. Promotions and appointments based on political proximity will be at the expense of the citadel of merit. Incompetent Generals are neither respected by men nor will they win battles. A compromised leadership will never produce the next Sam Manekshaw who can tell his Prime minister – “you do your job and let me do mine”. Additionally, our entire higher defence organization is frozen. While other nations are into jointness we remain disjointed. A Chief of Defense Staff has been the crying need of the hour since Kargil. Successive governments have not been able to do what is good for the nation. Rather they have succumbed to what is perceived as good by one Service. The “Coup” word whispered into a jittery politician’s ears by bureaucracy which fears its loss of control and ambitious journalists seeking fame is poisonous. This retrograde situation has gone on since long.
Status Degradation. A military which is equated or placed below the paramilitary or armed police forces is an oxymoron. The status of the Armed forces has been incrementally and systematically degraded through one manipulative pay commission and the next. Through one sleight of hand and the other. Through one set of unresolved anomalies to the other. Each compounding the effect of the previous. The principle of “civilian control” has been twisted grotesquely. Result. OROP agitation where veterans are beaten up like petty thieves on the streets. I doubt if in the history of mankind, if soldiers of any other nation have had to ever agitate for their dues on the streets. An NFU case which, if won by the supplicants ensures that the Armed Forces are second rate for ever. If won by the government, the Armed Forces are consigned to the lowest class. Akin to a downtrodden BPL (below poverty line) lot. At this rate, a new scheduled class of Servicemen will evolve who will “not be prepared to give their today for our tomorrow”.
Caste Based Vote Garnering. Exploitation of veterans to garner votes on caste / race basis is the latest trend line. A General joins a party. He starts canvassing for votes in a hill region from where the men he commanded hail from. His position and stature will politicize the serving and retired, rank and file of that lanyard. So, he is straight into caste/race politics. He would have shunned it while in Service. Is this why he joined politics? Half a dozen recently retired Generals join a party. On joining they praise the party as the one stop solution to solve all service-related problems. Are they not politicizing the serving rank and file with such talk? That is a compromise on the ethos the uniform they wore. The caste based Regimental and Lanyard systems of the Indian Army are being exploited. That is very very detrimental to the fighting fitness of the Indian Armed Forces. Touching this fault line of the Indian Army is a very dangerous situation. It needs serious deliberation.
Operational Aspects. Political mileage is being derived from operational actions – internal, external, surgical, non-surgical, cross border or cross LOC. Operational decisions and actions, past and present are being debated on media by dubious experts. Generals come on TV to contradict each other from political platforms. It is not great viewing. Fabricated facts on operations are circulating on social media which are apparently scripted by political spin doctors. It is scurrilous and subversive. It shakes national faith. Can we continue like this as a nation?
Let us zoom out. Look at the larger picture. Who are our worthy neighbors? Toxic Pakistan, economically defunct but with a military spend of 4% of GDP, nuclear and over overmilitarized with a national anti-India mindset. Predatory China, aiming at superpower status, with a string of pearls around India. It displays a map in an international conference to show part of J&K and Arunachal Pradesh as its territory. An Indian Ocean, which is increasingly being militarized. Internally, J&K remains a tinderbox and the IS flag has started waving. Where is our economy heading? Fastest growing on earth to be the third largest in the next three decades. Surely, we do need a decent military to combat our unambiguous threats and guard our growth. Otherwise, the writing is on the wall.
The other side of the backdrop is a military in political exclusion and increasingly out of the decision loop. The manning pattern of our MOD is suggestive of a cobbler carrying out a bypass surgery. It is bound to fail and has been proven so for at least the past two decades. Am I talking nonsense? Please read Dr Bhamre’s report to the Prime Minister. We are a space power. We are a nuclear power. We seek veto power on the security council. If our military is strong, we will get a complimentary boarding pass. Otherwise forget it. That is reality.
The Indian Armed Forces are fully incapable of carrying out a coup at any stage under any circumstance
The Indian Armed Forces are fully capable of being pushed into a mutinous mindset if the present situation continues or aggravates
Time to pull back. There are two unshakable strengths. Firstly, Indian democracy. Secondly the belief within our Armed Forces that democracy should be upheld at all costs. Build on them. The politician faces the hustings and the soldier faces the enemy. In this canvas it is time for them to face the nation together and ‘Rightstream’ the Armed Forces. The rank and file must be totally insulated from politics. Their loyalty and fealty should be only to the tricolor. Promotions and appointments, specially to higher ranks MUST be on merit without any compromise. Able service personnel should man not only MOD but other ministries and departments in the Center and State. Expose them to public dealing. It will do all round good. Voice and representation of the Armed Forces in the political landscape is missing. If bahubalis, criminals, suspected terrorists, god men, casteists, retired bureaucrats, businessmen can be elected as representatives of their interests, then there should be representation of Armed Forces also. Capable veterans should enter public life as politicians. It can be a combination of elected and nominated MPs, MLAs and even gram Pradhans. I know a case of a cook in my unit who is today a gram Pradhan in his village in HP. He is doing extremely well. All political parties should seriously look at this issue.
The next major reform is how to restore the status of Servicemen who the nation expects to sacrifice their lives and fundamental liberties. The national “Last Bastion” must be put on a pedestal. If not, that is not our “Last Bastion”. Find another. The fundamental issue is – pay as the equator of status. Break this link and device a system where balance can be restored. The imbalanced system cannot continue. To improve procurement and operational aspects we must reform the MOD. Appointment of a CDS and increased manning of the MOD by service personnel is mandatory. Surgical strikes must be carried out on our procurement system. These have been outlined again at the cost of repetition for emphasis.
Indian Soft Power is solid. The economic part of our Hard Power is rising. The military part of our Hard Power, the most important, is the weakest. It is up to the political leadership to ensure that India is strong enough to walk into the High Table. I also have full faith in our leadership across all parties that they will rise to the challenge in unison. Despite huge differences in ideology and approaches, we have grown economically. I am confident that irrespective of whoever comes to power or sits in opposition, they will have the vision and sagacity to work together to ensure that the Armed Forces are stronger. It is a matter of resolve. At the same time, we have plenty of good bureaucrats. The trick is to get them going. I am also hopeful like any other Indian that if all of us work together we can do the best for the Nation. I am also clear that there will be reactions ranging from derision to acceptance of my views. I am prepared to engage with all in any form or forum to discuss the method or the principle of my ideas.
SURGICAL STRIKES ON THE DEFENCE PROCUREMENT MACHINERY
The First Strike
Overhaul the overweight MOD so that the politician who faces the hustings and the servicemen who face the bullets drive the system and not let unaccountable bureaucrats slow /brake it. The tail cannot wag the dog.
The Second Strike
Get naval and artillery experts to replicate their successful models. Eject tried, tested and failed, self-proclaimed experts who dominate the Delhi Talk Circuit.
The Third Strike
Reform DPSUs and DRDO and make them perform. We have invested in building their capacities for seven decades. Management must perform or be changed ruthlessly
The Fourth Strike
Ditch hype. Get down to serious knowledge based indigenisation which is inclusive in nature to public and private players.
The Fifth Strike
Create empowered commissions to get some critical equipment off the ICU list
The Sixth Strike
Look ahead. Disruption in military affairs is happening. Disruptive technologies are making the brick and mortar defense industry redundant.
The Seventh Strike
The defence budget must specially fund outcome-based time critical projects (beyond normal allocation).
The Eighth Strike
Develop a knowledge path for defence technology and management from grass root levels upwards. Our knowledge base must be deeper.