The appointment of Mr. A K Anthony as India's new defence minister has raised many issues administrative and proprietary in the functioning of India's gargantuan government at the Centre. In the bureaucratic maze, that is India's defence and security infra structure, Mr. A K Anthony will be first faced with myriad personal challenges rather than professional ones. Mr. Anthony's key credentials to the job are his personal honesty which comes about from a Spartan life style rather than the opulence of the excess, the two dipoles of the Indian political Diaspora who are seen to be incorruptible.
Of the former, comprising of those with an ascetic life style, there are but a handful. The Prime Minister Mr. Manmohan Singh of course leads this small pack but Mr. Anthony is not far behind. But then the Armed Forces, particularly the top hierarchy which is not a paragon of self-denial, may feel distinctly uncomfortable with a defence minister who has stopped buying books because they are too expensive. It remains to be seen if Mr. Anthony is taken in by the pelf and splendor of the military or he is able to rein in its profligacy. The other test of his integrity will come with India's now notorious arms dealers. Their links with the political class are shown to be so deep rooted that, through the appointment of Mr. Anthony, the Congress is attempting to perhaps send a powerful signal to them, that honesty continues to be a valued virtue. Hopefully these masters of wheeling and dealing are not able to get around the new defence minister.
A greater challenge is to actualize and synergize the defence establishment, not just getting a Chief of Defence Staff, but the entire gargantuan structure of the defence ministry, the services, the DRDO, the Defence Ordnance Factories which have a major role to play in the productionalising of research and development by the DRDO and also integrating these with the civilian sector. This is the primary role of India's defence minister which Mr. Anthony is hopefully able to do, may be after he is able to understand the nuances of functioning of his ministry. Mr. Pranab Mukherjee with his vast experience and exposure to the ministerial functioning was able to carry it off quite well and would have made a decisive impact in case he had been allowed to continue over a full five year tenure. It is now up to Mr. Anthony to carry forward the good work of his predecessor.
His past credentials for such a job are less than flattering, for it would imply not only getting to know the security dynamics faced by the country over the next two to three decades but also to adjudicate frequently between the rival establishments that operate within the ministry, starting with inter services squabbling to constant snapping at the DRDO and the Ministry. The turf battles between the defence, home and external affairs ministry are also legion. The new defence minister has only the support of the Prime Minister and his own honest, straight forward and no nonsense approach to understand and then get on top of this hydra headed animal.
However the main challenge before Mr. Anthony is to exploit the vast potential of the armed forces in enhancing India's role in regional as well as international affairs. This strategic tool has hardly ever been exploited after perhaps Mr. Rajeev Gandhi's Prime Ministerial tenure to seek for India political and economic objectives, without posing extra territorial apprehensions by its neighbors. A muted role as part of the United Nations Peace Keeping force may not be enough if India is seeking a central role in the affairs of the world in the future. NATO's intervention in Afghanistan despite the multiple risks is perhaps one indication of the importance of active participation of the nation's armed forces in projecting national will and resolve in the interest of global order, rather than twiddling thumbs with a 1 million plus force fighting the proxy wars at home.
Internally no doubt the accountability of the DRDO is a primary issue towards which the Defence Minister would do well to create time measurable, result oriented processes and procedures for indigenization of the defence needs with a DRDO-public-private partnership. Institutionalizing such a process would be a stellar contribution by Mr. Anthony in his tenure which could be as short as the next two and a half years.
Fratricide in the Armed Forces is of course an issue but so are human rights violations and custodial deaths in Kashmir and the North East. Apart from isolated aberrations, the key to these issues is not stress as is made out to be so frequently in the media but failure of command at the cutting edge of battalions and companies where the pulse of the troops and imposition of personality of the commanding officers is lacking. At the senior level the inability to comprehend the tolerance threshold contributes to the pressures felt by the commanding officers, unless there are cushions in between. Getting the Army to dilute the Armed Forces Special Powers Act will be a Herculean task where he will certainly have to draw upon his philosophical reserves.