“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” — Thomas Jefferson
Despite one dire warning after another all thought its chequered annals, including a humiliating drubbing in 1962, if there’s still an Establishment in the comity of nations that refuses to be shaken out of its self-imposed delusion of apathy towards the defense of its frontiers, it is the Indian polity. One had only hoped that a Government headed by Narendra Modi will be different. But it isn’t, alas. How else do you explain the deplorable dithering about choosing the assignee of the Defense portfolio in the new Cabinet? We thought the new BJP Government is not cut from the same cloth the Congress regimes of the past were. We had assumed that the new Government will be guided by qualitatively different perceptions than that of its predecessors who chose to sit on their hands when enemies of India stared down across the frontiers.
We have to remember how chequered is our history − a history of one invasion after another. Remember the oft-quoted warning of George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. How many times are we condemned to repeat our past to finally learn from it?
As a nation we should never forget how Ameer Subaktageen was the first Muslim general who crossed Khyber Pass in 997 A.D., followed by his son Mahmud of Ghaznawi, who marched through with his army as many as seventeen times between 1001-1030 AD. Some of his campaigns were directed through the Khyber Pass.
Shahabuddin Muhammad Ghaur crossed the same Khyber Pass in 1175 AD and also used it again in 1193 to measure strength with Prithvi Raj Chouhan and show his mettle on the field of Tarain. This battle helped Muslims carve out a Muslim Kingdom in India.
In 1398 AD Amir Timur invaded India through the Khyber Pass and his descendant Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur made use of this very pass first in 1505 and then again in 1526 to establish a mighty Mughal empire.
Did the Mughal rulers learn anything from Indian past? Again, Nadir Shah Afshar of Iran used the Khyber Valley in 1739 AD to attack Delhi. The famous Afghan King, Ahmad Shah Abdali, crossed the Khyber Pass in 1761 A.D. to subdue the Marattha confederacy on the field of Panipat.
The State that Narendrabahi had the honor of leading for over a decade before the nation chose him to entrust with Prime Ministership of India, bore the brunt of many of the above invasions.
And then in 1962 the Chinese reminded us that we are as vulnerable in the north east as we have, historically, been from the north-west. The present Government, therefore, has inherited is an inglorious legacy of unsettled frontiers prone to attack which call for constant vigil.
But have a look at our dismal record. There have been since Independence thirty incumbents of the all-too-important defense portfolio.
1.Baldev Singh (1946−52)
2.Kailash Nath Katju (1955−57)
3. V. K. Krishna Menon (1957−62)
4. Yashwant Chavan (1962−66)
5. Sardar Swaran Singh (1966−70)
6. Jagjivan Ram (1970−74)
7.Sardar Swaran Singh (1974−75)
8 Indira Gandhi (1975)
9. Bansi Lal (1975−77)
10. Jagjivan Ram (1977−79)
11. Chidambaram Subramaniam (1979−80)
12. Indira Gandhi (1980−82)
13. R. Venkataraman (1982–84)
14 Shankarrao Chavan (1984)
15. P. V. Narasimha Rao( 1984−85)
16. Rajiv Gandhi (1985−87)
17.V. P. Singh (1987)
18.K. C. Pant (1987−89)
19. V. P. Singh (1989−90)
20. Chandra Shekhar (1990−91)
21. Sharad Pawar (1991−93)
22.P. V. Narasimha Rao (1993−96)
23. Pramod Mahajan (1996)
24. Mulayam Singh Yadav (1996−98)
25. George Fernandes (1998−2001)
26Jaswant Singh (2001)
27.George Fernandes (2001−04)
28 Pranab Mukherjee (2004−06)
29 A.K. Antony (2006−14)
30 Arun Jaitley (May 26, 2014: temporary charge)
We can draw a few inferences from the above table. However, may I before that, highlight another fact. Four of our Prime Ministers have had a stint as the Defense Minister of India, namely, V P Singh , Indira Gandhi, P V Narasimha Rao, and Rajiv Gandhi. And also, Indira Gandhi, VP Singh and George Fernandes had two stints each at the defense portfolio. Five of the 30 above listed Raksha Mantris i.e., Indira Gandhi , Shankarrao Chavan, VP Singh, Promod Mahajan, and Jaswant Singh in 1975, 1984, 1097, 1996, and 2001 respectively spent only a few months each in the Ministry. Narendra Modi therefore is in the good company of his predecessors who never treated the Defense Ministry as serious enough for special consideration
The one little-noticed and less-commented effect of all these goings-on has been the emergence of Babu Raj in the Ministry of Defense. I’ve known among my friends some high-ranking Army officers posted in the Ministry who confessed their utter inability to find their way in the intractable jungle of ministerial bureaucracy where babus rule the roost. They operate on the basis of tell-me-the-person-and I’ll-cite-the-rule. It is, literally, the case of the top brass eating from the hand of the babus who, incidentally have no accountability but have, over the years, amassed all the power.
Let me cite a heart-rending case. General Sam Manekshaw who, after centuries, so convincingly won for India a victory in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War − a war that brought glory to our armed forces − was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal in 1973. It took the Government of India − and that meant the ministries of finance and defense in this case − thirty-five years to settle his pay and perks that went with his rank. What possibly can be more humiliating than to receive a cheque for over Rs one and a half crore delivered to the man in 2008 when he was in hospital down with his last illness. These were his dues calculated by experts from the date of his promotion in 1973. Don’t forget for babus rules are far more important than the persons whom they apply.
If you want more evidence, see once again that classic film, Dhup where Om Puri plays brilliantly the role of the father of a young dead officer decorated with Maha Vir Chakra who runs literally from pillar to post for years to obtain sanction of a petrol pump which the Government in its boundless magnanimity offered in the first instance. Of late dozens of such cases were debated on TV where widows of officers who died for the country narrated how they have awaited for years for payment of dues of their husbands.
To what depths of degradation can cussedness descend? But has one single babu lost his job for neglect of duty?
That’s not all. Immediately, before the take-over of the BJP Government we had the protracted lack-luster A K Anthony spell in Defense Ministry.
No Government after the 1962 shock has been so lackadaisical in its choice of the incumbent of Defense Ministry than UP. Perhaps our worst ever defense minister ever was A K Anthony. I can’t do him the honor of using the definite article the before his name because a fellow-Keralite, V K Krishna Menon, a favorite of the great dynast, is a very close competitor for that honor. Menon has been much discussed for his notorious legacy which cost the county a lot in terms of lost self-respect. As a person he was no less unedifying. As BK Nehru, a contemporary and very closely related to the Family, mentioned in his autobiography, Good Guys Finish Second, the Hon’ble Minister ate free at the India House canteen after his grandiloquent pronouncement that he won’t draw any salary as High Commissioner. However, he picked up all his dues to the last penny before shifting to New Delhi. So, the lunches were on the house. Antony, at least so far, has no such double-deal reported to his credit.
However, A K Anthony is a very serious contender for the choice of the worst defense minister the country ever had. His was the longest tenure as defense minister: from 2006 to 2014, which is most unlikely to be beaten for a long time. He held on to the vital portfolio because his snow-white clean image was an excellent cover for the real bosses of UPA I and UPA II to plunder the treasury.
Otherwise, his record of performance was as dismal as dismal can be. For instance, he could have cleared the long-pending concept of joint command whereby the three commands of our armed forces would jointly fight the future unconventional wars. Again, he could have, during his long tenure, speeded up and streamlined the procedures for arms acquisition. It used to take us seven years to buy anything from a boot to a battle tank. It still takes not a day less after his long spell in office.
Hardware purchases worth over $100 billion are pending for over a decade, adversely affecting the combat potential of our services. For instance there has been no progress on deals for 2, 200 howitzers for the army during Anthony’s tenure. Never do today or tomorrow what can always be postponed for the proverbial another day which, you and I know, never comes nor it arrive during his long tenure.
Two years ago, an outraged vice-admiral strode into Defense Minister A.K. Antony’s wood-paneled office on the first floor of South Block. He wanted to know why Antony had signed on a policy that would exclude submariners and aviators from holding the top job in the Navy. It would make submariners and aviators second-class citizens in the service, he warned. Antony, the vice-admiral recalls, held his head in his hands and sank into his chair. He later struck the policy down. But he had exposed his embarrassing cluelessness at what he had almost done without applying his mind.
AK Antony’s tenure, the longest for a defense minister, had seen scams and crises, and worst of all, unpreparedness. Under his seven-and-a-half-year tenure − I repeat the longest for an Indian defense minister − the Ministry of Defense (MoD) has lurched from one crisis to another. The most visible have been the controversies over the service chiefs.
General V.K. Singh (now an elected BJP MP from Ghaziabad) took the Government to the Supreme Court in 2012; former air chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi had been charge-sheeted by CBI in 2013 for accepting bribes; and Navy chief Admiral D.K. Joshi, quit in ignominy after a spate of warship accidents, beginning with the August 14, 2013 destruction of a submarine as well as deaths of 18 of its crew, and the February 26 fire onboard another submarine that killed two officers. “This is a record of infamy which the UPA and the defense minister will carry as a burden for as long as their sensibilities are able to recognize what great wrong they have done to India,” says former BJP defense minister Jaswant Singh.
The February 17 decision to award nearly 2.5 million retired servicemen ‘one rank, one pension’ − for which Antony claimed credit for − came after seven years of such bitter rancor, with veterans handing in their medals.
The divide between the 1.4 million men in uniform and the civilians who run the defense ministry has never been greater. Antony out-maneuvered those who advocated defense reforms to promote synergy in civil-military functioning by setting up the Naresh Chandra Committee in 2011. He reiterated the old line of permanent chairman but did nothing to see it through.
“Worst Defense Minister Ever”
In Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M Gates notes the greatest challenge faced by a secretary of defense is the crushing impact of “dealing with multiple problems daily, pivoting on a dime every few minutes from one issue to another and then making decisions, always with too little time and too much ambiguous information”.
Under AK Antony, decision-making in the Ministry slowed to a crawl. It had catastrophic consequences for defense preparedness, with India's military machine still equipped with tanks, fighter jets and warships acquired way back in the 1980s. Howitzers have not been bought since 1987, new submarines have been delayed by over five years and fighter jet proposals are pending since 1999. The $100-billion list of pending military requirements may take over a decade to be met. This is why Rear Admiral (retired) K. Raja Menon calls Antony the “worst defence minister ever”.
Crucial reforms such as the appointment of a chief of defense staff (now watered down to a permanent chairman chiefs of staff committee) to enable the services to pool resources and fight jointly as well as proposals to give the private sector a level-playing field with the public sector in defense production, have been shelved. “Nobody has anything bad to say about Antony the person,” says Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar, “but he simply lacks the connect at the policy and the strategic level”. Antony’s lack of vision, his inability to see over the horizon, to demand accountability and insist on deadlines stands out.
George Fernandes, during his tenure in NDA between 1998 and 2004, and Pranab Mukherjee from 2004 to 2006, ran the ministry on a tight leash and delicately balanced civil-military relations. Fernandes posted his bureaucrats to Siachen. An official recalls how a bureaucrat collapsed after a verbal barrage from Mukherjee. Antony’s reliance on the bureaucracy has rankled the military. A crucial file for dredging the sensitive Mumbai harbor was held up for four years. It resulted in the grounding of one submarine, INS Sindhughosh, in January this year. Nobody was punished for the delay.
The Scam Stain
Less than a week after the scandal caused by the navy chief’s resignation, a new scam hit South Block. On March 2, the defense ministry announced it was handing over complaints of bribery in the procurement of Rolls-Royce engines by the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, to the CBI. The armed forces braced for the impact of another scandal on its military preparedness: Rolls-Royce engines power over 100 fighter, transport and trainer aircraft in the Army and Navy.
Antony’s real mandate was to prevent these scandals from doing a Bofors on UPA. But Antony’s zero tolerance for corruption has not prevented a string of corrupt defense deals. In January, the ministry terminated a $556.26-million deal for 12 VVIP helicopters from Agusta Westland. The scandal followed allegations of bribery in the purchases of Tatra trucks and irregularities in the purchases of light utility helicopters.
Hollow indigenous capability
Antony’s socialist leanings, his refusal to reform the defense Public Sector Undertakings (PSUS) and suspicion of the private sector, may be the root cause of the failure of indigenous defense capability to meet India’s requirements.
India's gigantic but creaky military-industrial complex, a network of 39 ordnance factories, three defense shipyards, eight defense PSUs and 52 DRDO laboratories has been unable to produce new hardware, leaving the services importing 60 per cent of their military needs from abroad. When Antony took over, India was the sixth largest importer of arms and China was the largest arms importer. In less than a decade, India has become the world’s largest arms importer and China has become the world’s fifth largest arms exporter.
Outlined above is the legacy the that Prime Minister Modi’s choice to head the Defense Ministry will have to grapple with in a fast-changing scenario. Indeed the world has had its longest spell of peace in recent history. There’s no major war other than local conflagrations from 1945 till today − a longer spell of peace than the one preceding the First World War after 1871.
Narendrabahi may ask whomever he chooses to oversee India’s defenses over the next five years to read Israeli scholar Professor Azar Gat’s monumental book, War in Human Civilization before taking his oath of office to realize the gravitas of the office being entrusted to him. And let him be sure how reconciled are our neighbors to our existence in their scheme of things. He would have many a jagged reality to reckon with.
Continued to “Contagion of Institutional Decay”