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September 21, 1999


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Issues 99/ Adm J G Nadkarni (retd)

'The guns versus butter is going to be a tough choice for the new DM and the FM'

By mid-October a new government will have been sworn-in in New Delhi. Hopefully, it will be a majority government, capable of lasting the full five years. By that time the media-overblown issues like Bhagwat and Surinder Singh will be behind us. The hype on Kargil would have died down. It will be time to get down to the serious issues of defence and security.

The new defence minister and his colleagues will have to face some formidable issues within a short time of taking office. Within a few months of the new millennium the new finance minister will have to present the Budget and the ticklish question of defence allocations will confront the new government. India's defence budget has stagnated over the last ten years. The marginal increase each year has barely kept pace with inflation. The Kargil episode starkly brought out the need for modernisation of the armed forces. No worthwhile new equipment has been purchased for the past ten years. The Army requires new tanks and howitzers. The Air Force has been pressing for a decision on the Advanced Jet Trainer for the past decade. Indian Navy requires replacements for its aircraft carrier and frigates. The pressure for increasing the defence budget has increased after Kargil.

Most defence experts point out that today, at 2.5 per cent of the GDP, the Indian defence budget is way below its peak of 3.7 per cent during the Rajiv Gandhi years. And yet, at nearly Rs 500 billion, it is the second largest expenditure in the Union budget. Every additional crore spent on defence is that much less funds allocated for development. That much funds less for poverty eradication, power and water resources, new schools and healthcare. The Indian infrastructure is creaking and requires rebuilding if the economy is to take off. Ironically, a study says that the cost of improving the infrastructure would be Rs 500 billion, the same as the defence budget.

The problem with the defence budget is not just that less money is allotted but that most of what is budgeted goes in maintaining the existing manpower and equipment. The revenue budget of the Indian Army is hovering around a dangerous 85 per cent of the total allocation. Pay and allowances of the men take away a large slice, 55 per cent, and leave a pittance for modernisation. The answer is either to investigate avenues of reducing the revenue expenditure or to allot ever-larger amounts to the unproductive sector of defence.

What India will have to spend on defence will, to a large extent, depend on the relationship we will have in the coming years with our recalcitrant neighbour, Pakistan. Unfortunately, it is difficult to foresee any improvement in relations or the chance of an entente with our neighbour, at least for a decade. As a result of Kargil, both the Pak Army and the militant organisations in Pakistan have emerged stronger. A feeble Nawaz Sharief has hardly any control over the other two power centres. Despite periodic warnings from the IMF, Pakistan continues to spend over seven per cent of its GDP on defence. In fact, the two neighbours are drowning in a sea of defence expenditure. And with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, going down lower each year in the world's list of human development records.

The guns versus butter is going to be a tough choice for the DM and the FM. Whatever be the decision no one is going to be happy.

The new government cannot put off a decision on signing the CTBT. Experts say that we have, after Pokhran II, gathered enough data to be able to simulate all nuclear tests in a laboratory. The problem then is not a technical one. In fact, it is generally agreed that there is now no harm in signing the CTBT. By now, India has more or less been accepted as a member of the nuclear club. The main question is, what we can get out of offering our precious signature. At best, it can be US support for our efforts to get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. At worst the lifting of sanctions and resumption of aid. It is now a simple matter of haggling before we sign the document.

The new government also needs to address itself to the entire nuclear issue. It will be fair to admit that the fallout of Pokhran II has not been as expected. Neither has nuclearisation led to any cutting down of the conventional forces nor has it proved to be a deterrent. It is now obvious that neither of these can be expected. Indeed, post-Kargil, the move is already afoot to increase the size of the paramilitary forces. The National Security Council has produced what has been touted as 'India's first strategic doctrine'. The government wants a national debate on the paper. Unfortunately, any debate in India is being increasingly confined to the dozen-odd experts within a mile of South Block. No national debate is possible unless the Indian people are involved in it. And the majority of the Indian public is totally ignorant on nuclear issues. Not one in a thousand people who danced in the streets after Pokhran II know anything about the after-effects of a nuclear attack. The most urgent agenda before a new government is to educate India's masses on nuclear warfare. It is necessary to show films like The Day After to India's innocent public. The hubris, euphoria and jingoism may die when it is realised that 30 lakh people in Delhi or Bombay will die after just one device is exploded over these cities. It will also stop irresponsible calls by political parties to "nuke the enemy".

The long-needed reforms required in the country's Higher Command Organisation as well as in the defence headquarters is another issue which requires attention. After the Bhagwat episode, George Fernandes promised to bring about these reforms 'within a month'. Not a thing has moved even after ten months. Except for introducing a wishy-washy National Security Council the outgoing government has little to show in way of reforms. Kargil clearly showed that the NSC in its present form is neither effective nor useful. Possibly that was the intention in making the NSC so unwieldy, leading once again to a concentration of power in a single individual. Roadblocks by bureaucrats have put a halt to any reforms in the defence headquarters. It is thus the same situation as before in South Block. Will the new minister have the imagination, dynamism and above all the guts to override the bureaucrats and push through the reforms? Or will he take the easier way out and sidestep the whole issue as his predecessors have done?

The Subrahmanyam Committee report on Kargil should be out at about the same time the new government is installed. The report is sure to raise many important points. The failure to detect the intrusions, the lack of proper intelligence and the inadequacy of equipment are just some of them. All will have to be remedied urgently. Will the report be made public and properly debated in Parliament? Or will it go the way of so many earlier reports and gather dust on the shelves of government offices?

The new defence minister has his agenda cut out for him. If what the polls indicate comes true, we may find ourselves with a stable government at the Centre this time. If so, there will no longer be any excuse for not coming to grips with the important issues of defence which have been postponed for over a year. The time to start doing something is from Day One.

Former Chief of Naval Staff Adm J G Nadkarni (retd) is a frequent contributor to these pages


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