Dear (would-be) Prime Minister!
‘Peace is a period of cheating between two periods of fighting’ wrote American journalist Ambrose Bierce in the nineteenth century. India’s five wars in sixty years of independence make it a war every decade, a pretty short period of cheating! And, since our neighbours keep us occupied through ingenious means ranging from outright kinetic action to helping prop-up insurgencies, Indians deserve to know your views on how your government (post the national elections in May this year) plans to address issues of national security; they are as important as roti, kapda, makaan and corruption, which the “aam aadmi” is rightly agitated about.
India, at least modern India, lacks a sense of history and with it follows the fact that we somehow don’t learn from it; some term it as lacking a strategic culture. But there are so many pressing issues that these arguments cannot hold back a discussion, and as a corollary, leave India’s security issues to knee-jerk reactions post a triggering event. So, let’s forget the strategic part (which is not correct itself) and talk about dangers staring us in the face.
Let us begin with your strategy to cope with an event that will happen very soon this year and which portends diverse hues of threats for India’s security - the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Analysts are talking about a likely move of “unemployed” insurgents to Kashmir, which will upset the gains made so far. How do you plan to interact with the Afghan government which may be under siege by the Taliban and under coercive threat from Pakistan to toe its line?
The huge economic investments of China in Afghanistan have major security implications and Pakistan is making all attempts to make India irrelevant in Afghanistan’s reconstruction. China’s flexing of its military muscle on India’s borders and its Eastern seaboard is breakfast news every day and its feverish militarisation has its zooming defence budget becoming three times that of India’s. It has obtained naval base facilities in our complete neighbourhood through its “String of Pearls” strategy and very soon will become a two-ocean nation when its road from Sittwe in Myanmar to Kunming gets completed, giving it access to the Bay of Bengal. The defence industries of India and China were on a par in the mid 1970s after which the Chinese graph took off. Today China’s defence industry has reached the stage of disruptive innovation where truly home-grown armaments, like their J-20 stealth fighter, will enter service. They are just a few years away from producing a fighter aircraft jet engine, and when that happens we would be leagues behind, possibly still crowing about the Tejas. What happened to our indigenisation plan based on the much-trumpeted defence offsets?
So dear sir/madam, can we do a China with our defence industry? Of course we can, if there is a concerted and well-thought-out plan. After all there was the indefatigable T N Seshan, who put all parties “on track” and made sure that the electoral system regained the glory that the founders of the Constitution dreamt about; and recently there was a guy named Vinod Rai too!
Then, what is missing that makes us import 70 per cent of our defence needs, even as our conventional capability continues to dwindle? It’s a leadership that is sensitive to the fact that rifles, aircraft, ships et al, made indigenously, are as important as nuclear weapons. In fact, in the nuclearised environment that we find ourselves in, the conventional capability is what gives a country the edge to enhance deterrence. Our nuclear and space programmes have succeeded because both departments have always been directly under the PM, ensuring that political direction is never missing.
Whatis missing in the defence sector is understanding and acceptance of the fact that there is a void of similar political stewardship, not the grandiose statements of all political parties and the innumerable committees that Naresh Chandra and Kelkar et al have lent their names to. Their reports have wasted many reams of paper as we are going to import even the humble rifle for our jawan very soon, what to talk of the MMRCA!
“Vision” is an acute sense of the possible, dear would-be helmsman! The “aam aadmi” wants to know what your vision to make India get back its strategic autonomy is so that the Indian Air Force doesn’t have to worry about keeping its MiGs flying because the Russians jack up their prices, the Navy doesn’t have to fret about keeping its Sea King helicopters airworthy owing to an embargo on American spare parts (as happened after Pokhran) and the Army doesn’t look around wondering where its next artillery gun would come from. The people who should worry are the foreign governments and arms manufacturers who are in the driver’s seat in the procurement chain. They must worry because with your vision our moribund Defence Public Sector Undertakings should start producing “real” made-in-India products. They must worry about the threat of the Indian private sector displacing them when it starts strutting the made-in-India tag in the world’s arms bazaar. They must worry that with your vision of synchronising the running of the defence and foreign ministries, our cogent outlook to realpolitik would get us a place on the top table in world affairs.
And now some innate queries -- how do you plan to make the defence forces an attractive career or does one await another Kargil to fire our youths’ imagination? And pray, what are your views on instilling jointness in the three services, without which all well-meaning plans would not be able to deliver their real punch in the event of a crunch?
Finally, dear would-be Prime Minster, a peep into your vision please, about how a jawan should feel on retirement, after giving his youth and life in the service of the nation! Today, the “aam fauji”, who is also an “aam aadmi”, appears not too happy. To paraphrase the visionary Churchill: a jawan is a living being: look after him or he would sulk; if that happens, it would be a telling comment on your vision.
An “aam fauji”
(The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, Subroto Park, New Delhi)