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Why A K Antony needs our prayers
October 27, 2006
As a Keralite, I am happy that someone from my state now occupies such a high post. (Antony is, as far as I remember, the first Keralite in that chair since V K Krishna Menon.) And I am happy because Antony, whom I have known personally for over four decades, has been rewarded for his honesty and his immunity to 'influence'.
At the same time, I am apprehensive that some of Antony's own strengths will be turned against him. He has in the past displayed not just sensitivity but something verging on hypersensitivity about his reputation for probity. That makes it all too easy for the unscrupulous to push him to resignation, and it makes him so careful that administrative decisions are, occasionally, delayed.
A little reticence is not necessarily a bad thing. In hindsight, everyone agrees that it might have better were, say, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a little less eager to move into action. But I hope Antony's tendency to wait until every minute detail has been examined in person doesn't bog down the defence ministry when it is facing new challenges.
Antony's most pressing call is the need to equip India's soldiers, sailors, and airmen. The MiG has earned a reputation in the media as a 'flying coffin'. It is an open secret that the army is not happy with the Arjun, the indigenously developed tank; there are doubts about how it will fare against Pakistan's T-80UD (bought from Ukraine) and the Al Khalid (a Chinese collaboration). Does India want to go ahead with completely indigenous programmes to develop and build weapons, or collaborate with other nations, or simply buy equipment outright?
The problem is that everything concerned with defence purchases has become completely politicised. The recent instance of the CBI filing a case against George Fernandes about the acquisition of Barak missiles is a perfect example. It forced the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Arun Prakash, to issue a public statement to the effect that the Barak was the best possible choice. This opens up a can of worms about the claims made by the Indian defence research establishment about the Trishul missile. The navy is also unhappy that one of its former chiefs, Admiral Sushil Kumar, has been dragged into the controversy.
Pranab Mukherjee, Antony's predecessor in the defence ministry, brought much political acumen to the job. But he soon found how difficult it was to negotiate between administrative efficiency and politics. One of Mukherjee's earliest statements as defence minister gave Fernandes a clean chit in the 'Kargil Coffins' controversy. That may have been the right thing to do but it drew the ire of some in Mukherjee's Congress party. Handling the Barak missile case is sure to test all of Antony's political skills.
Part of the problem is that India has mishandled the whole issue of defence purchases. Twenty years ago, Rajiv Gandhi banned 'middlemen.' In practice, their continued prosperity is such an open secret that the British publication The Economist mockingly identified two as 'one owns a central Delhi hotel; another has a publicly declared stake in a low-cost airline'.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is so fed-up with this idiotic farce that he wants to usher a little 'liberalisation' into the defence Ministry. He wants to permit agents to register so that they can carry on their lobbying publicly (as for instance in the United States). But how does a Congress prime minister overturn a decision taken by the hallowed Rajiv Gandhi?
I am certain that the Opposition shall pillory the prime minister even if he gets a green signal from the Congress 'high command'. First, it will be said that he is giving legitimacy to shady business practices (though he is actually trying to throw a little light on them).
Second, the prime minister will be accused of overturning decades of the Swadeshi policy, weakening India's own efforts by introducing foreign goods. (Which brings us back to Admiral Arun Prakash's statement about just why it was necessary to buy the Barak from Israel!)
Forget about the attractions of the private sector, does India offer its army, navy, and air force officers the privileges enjoyed by civil servants? How will the new defence minister tackle this issue?
One month later, Pranab Mukherjee came before television cameras to inform us that Pakistan's ISI had infiltrated India's armed services. Which of them is correct?
T V R Shenoy