At the Aero India show in Bangalore, Narendra Modi made a statement that could well be a national motto. Said he, “I don’t want India to be No. 1 in the import of defence equipment... We should export.” This is an epiphany that took some six decades to come to our leaders. Import of fighter planes, submarines and field guns meant not only big money going to foreign companies, but also dependence on those companies in a military emergency. India, a leader in space technology and rocket science, has had for quite a while the wherewithal to become self-reliant in defence needs. What was lacking was a resolve on the part of our policy makers.
That seems to be happening at last. The day before Modi’s statement, the Cabinet Committee on Security cleared projects worth more than Rs 1 lakh crore to provide muscle to the Indian Navy. In the works are indigenously manufactured stealth frigates, diesel-electronic submarines and nuclear-powered submarines with ballistic missile capability. Big-ticket assets of this kind take time to get commissioned. The first of six advanced stealth diesel-electronic subs on order will, for example, take 10 years to build.
If such decisions had been taken 10 years ago, we would have been reasonably strong by now. If the decisions had been taken 20 years ago, we would have been stronger still. The tragedy is that even 50 years ago, we consciously avoided taking vital decisions on defence self-sufficiency because our leaders were pre-occupied with petty rivalries. Our very first defence minister drew up plans for local manufacture of basic defence equipment for which we had the capacity at that time. But the plans were undermined by the finance minister because he disliked the defence minister.
In fact important people disliked V K Krishna Menon who had many dislikable dimensions to his intellectual brilliance. But the man was a visionary and initiated policies based on a principle meant to make the country strong: India’s defence system must have its own industrial base. He made plans to convert the ordnance factories into major manufacturing hubs. But he was denied the all-important budgetary allocations. Finance Minister Morarji Desai’s antipathy to Krishna Menon was garnished by his belief that India, the land of ahimsa, should not spend big on military paraphernalia. He even considered spying immoral. By cutting down on budgets, he reduced India’s intelligence agency, RAW, to a skeleton. In line with his moral posture, he told Pakistan’s Zia-ul-Haq about Pakistani agents working for RAW. The undercover agents were shot. Morarji became the only Indian national to receive Pakistan’s highest civilian honour, the Nishan-e-Pakistan.
It was left to R Venkataraman, the eighth President of India, to put things in perspective and on record. He was himself defence minister from 1982 to 84, thus getting an insider’s view of what had happened and not happened. Saying that our defence policy acquired, under Krishna Menon, direction as well as momentum, Venkataraman wrote: “Krishna Menon was the first to acknowledge that the defence production base, in the ultimate analysis, could not be divorced from the economic and industrial infrastructure of the country.”
Fifty-eight long years after Krishna Menon became defence minister, the fundamental principle he tried to establish has finally been given official imprimatur. The men
who have done so are dramatically different from him, their ideology diametrically opposed to his. The famous Leftist of the 1950s and the Rightists of today put the national interest first and that is why their ideas for the country’s defence have coalesced. The present Defence Minister takes decisions while his recent predecessors tried to put off decisions. A late start is better than no start.
The time could not be more propitious. The BrahMos supersonic cruise missile was a declaration of India’s homegrown capabilities. The expanded Mazagon Docks in Mumbai, the Garden Reach in Kolkata, the Cochin Shipyard and the “secretive” Vizag submarine facility proclaim the strides made by the public sector.
The private sector has grown big enough to have, according to experts, the capability to build 80 per cent of the navy’s equipment needs and 75 per cent of the Army’s. Players like Tata Power Strategic Engineering Division (electronic warfare systems), L&T (complete naval vessels among other things) and Bharat Forge (artillery systems) are examples of what is already under way. The Anil Ambani Group is planning a 5,000-acre integrated defence and aerospace smart city with its own airfield, research centre and auxiliary units.
This is not just Make In India. This is Making India.