March 15, 2001


 Search the Internet

Send this column to a friend

Print this page
Dilip D'Souza

No Questions Please, Just Pass The Blue Label

Was it the strange nosedive in the stock market that diverted our attention? Or was it the usual reluctance to raise questions about the defence budget, the hollow pretence that such questions are anti-national?

I'll go way out on a limb and plump for the latter. Yes, despite the fall in the markets, that pretence is the reason we've had silence about the just-the-usual increase in the defence budget this year. Just-the-usual silence, naturally.

This year, Yashwant Sinha proposed a Rs 620 billion budget for defence. Over six hundred rupees for every single Indian in this huge country, just like that. This "level" of defence spending has been maintained, I learned from news reports right after Sinha announced his Budget, "since the funds crunch hit the Army's preparedness during the Kargil conflict in May-July 1999."

Most fine, I'm sure. Except: Precisely what funds crunch?

In 1996, then finance minister P Chidambaram presented a budget which allocated 278 billion rupees for defence. In 1997, that figure had gone up to 356 billion rupees. In 1998, Yashwant Sinha raised it to 412 billion. In 2000: 586 billion. In 2001: 620 billion.

That is: in five years, spending on defence has better than doubled. What funds crunch is this in which the funds are increasing by an average of 17.4 per cent annually? How many investments have you made that have performed as spectacularly? In these five years, has inflation doubled the price of anything you buy? Anything?

Yet we are told every year, and expected to swallow silently, that our armed forces face a "funds crunch." Or that defence spending has "declined." That because of this "decline", our "security" is "compromised" and "threatened." That therefore we must pay up ever more for defence. We do pay up more every year, but our "security" has remained under "threat" now for nearly 54 years.

Seems to me that the only thing that has declined, that is threatened, is our willingness to apply a healthy dose of scepticism to such talk. In all the years I have followed the defence budget figures, there has not been a single time it has actually decreased, not even in inflation-adjusted terms. Instead, spending always increases, handily outstripping inflation every time. Yet the myth of a "decline", of a "funds crunch", persists.

And every time someone points out this truth that should be evident to anyone who simply follows the news, who reads what our finance minister tells us each February, that someone can look forward to piles of abuse from alert readers. (My experience, anyway). They will say authoritatively and with increasing ire: no, no, you've got it all wrong, our defence budget has been decreasing for years now, what do you know about national security, why are you writing about issues you don't know about, how dare you question defence spending, what a traitor you are! (Nice equation, don't you think? Ask a question about the defence budget, turn into an instant traitor).

Few of these authoritative correspondents seem willing to think: if the army's preparedness had indeed been "hit" at the time of Kargil, maybe we must attribute that not to a lack of funds, but to a failure of intelligence? And I mean that ("intelligence") in every sense of the term, applying to all kinds of people.

Does this preoccupation with a mythical "funds crunch" divert us from pulling up those responsible for such a failure? It must, because to my knowledge there is no substantive figure who has been punished for the lack of preparedness that eventually left several hundred soldiers dead in our Kargil conflagration.

Besides, the last time I looked, 278 to 356 to 412 to 586 to 620 -- all billions of rupees -- does not fit any known definition of "decreasing." I believe I know enough about national security to recognize that much.

And it is against this backdrop that we wake up to the latest evidence of just where this reluctance to question defence spending has left us. Surely Tehelka's expose of the sleaze that pervades the defence establishment is surprising only to the patriots who refuse to ask questions. To anyone else -- the more ordinary Indians among us -- the veil of secrecy alone should have told the story.

Consider the reach of this single episode. It involves the heads of two political parties (Bangaru Laxman of the BJP and Jaya Jaitley of the Samata Party). These are parties, let it be said, that lose not one opportunity to pose to us as moral champions. That posing is now exposed, or you'd think it would be, for the crass sham it always was. It involves a RSS man who claims: "I am expecting commission this year of Rs 10 billion" (Raj Kumar Gupta). It involves an army man so small-minded that he says openly: "You can't talk without bringing Blue Label; if you are talking of bloody making a couple of crores of rupees, you can't give me bloody Black Label also" (Maj Gen Manjit Singh Ahluwalia, Director-General of Ordnance and Supply).

That's right, this one episode tells us that when it is our famed "national security" that is being used as a cover for greed and corruption, Black Label won't cut it, but Blue Label will. I presume Ahluwalia means Johnnie Walker scotch whisky, but who knows? What does it matter, really? It might as well be Number 9 Best Quality Top-O-Top Feni, brewed in a dim garage somewhere in Goa. The man seems willing to decide defence purchases for a bottle of booze. So much for national security. So much, too, for a patriotism that prevents questions about defence spending.

What Tehelka's work has shown above all, it seems to me, is the price we are paying for willingly, even vehemently, choosing to be mute about the defence budget. For when vast amounts of money are wrapped in this vast silence, you can bet -- you must bet -- something furtive is happening. And so it is. As Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka writes: [The investigation is] the story of nakedly greedy middlemen, nakedly greedy army officers and nakedly greedy politicians. ... It shows that the poor innocent soldiers who die for paltry salaries and gaudy medallions are but fodder for the men who make [billions] cranking the machinery of Indian defence.

In recent months, I have twice been to visit the families of two of those very soldiers Tejpal writes about; two fine young Indians who were killed in our war in Kashmir. Saurabh Kalia and Nawang Kapadia were in their early 20s, athletic and eager young men who chose to join the army out of a desire to serve their country as best they could. Both died within weeks of joining their regiments. When I met their families and spent time with them, I was conscious all through of two contrasting thoughts.

One, a recognition of the enormous heroism of these men. It is heroism of a quality that is beyond me -- maybe even beyond my comprehension. I can only salute these brave Indians, hope that they inspire more of us to serve our country in our own ways.

Two, a deep dejection over this question: Exactly what did these two Indians die for?

The pat answer of course, contains empty phrases like "the glory of the country", or "defending our borders." How the patriots love the sound of those words.

But the real answer may lie in the sleaze Tehelka has just confirmed for us. Kalia and Kapadia died in a war that continues because it is traitorous to ask questions about it. They died in a war that must be kept going so that despicable men can get their supplies of Blue Label.

Dilip D'Souza

Your Views

 E-mail address:

 Your Views:

Mail Dilip D'Souza