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Where is the go-getter Parrikar?

January 11, 2017 11:51 IST

Instead of ramming through change, the defence minister has tied his own hands by placing reform at the mercy of numerous committees, says Ajai Shukla.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar

The military has started 2017 with a fresh slate on several fronts.

The army and the air force both have new chiefs, an opportunity for fresh ideas and approaches.

There is hope that the military could soon get its first tri-service commander, creating badly needed synergy between the army, navy and air force.

Across the border, Pakistan, too, has a new army chief who seems less inclined to grandstand, and appears to understand that tensions with India distract his military from more urgent priorities.

Looking further out, as a new US President, Donald Trump, outlines his policies towards Russia and China, New Delhi will have to tack to new headwinds from that Great Power triangle.

It might be useful, therefore, to start the new year by taking stock of where our 1.6 million strong military stands.

After completing over half its tenure in power, the avowedly nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has made only limited headway in steering the military to the sunlit uplands it had promised.

In his election manifesto of 2014, then prime ministerial hopeful Narendra Modi had accused the United Progressive Alliance of 'surrendering India's interests' in seven major areas: 'Intrusions (by the Chinese) inside the LAC (Line of Actual Control), loss of squadrons of combat aircraft by the air force, witnessing of a series of accidents by the navy, leading to a loss in its combating (sic) capability built over many decades, communal riots, Maoist attacks, increase in incidence of Pakistan-backed terror groups in India, and illegal immigration across the eastern border.'

An honest appraisal would conclude that many of these remain serious concerns.

The BJP manifesto had promised specific measures to strengthen external defence. The important ones included:
a. Reforming defence equipment procurement, support services and organisational functioning;
b. Modernising the armed forces by fast-tracking defence procurement; and increasing research and development spending to develop indigenous technologies;
c. Addressing manpower shortages (which actually exist only at the officer level), including by making Short Service Commission more attractive;
d. Ensuring the military plays a larger role in defence ministry decision making;
e. Dealing firmly with cross-border terrorism, including by improved border management;
f. Improving military justice, by reforming Armed Forces Tribunals and minimising government appeals against adverse court verdicts.

Let us start with the positives. The government has delivered on high-visibility, populist measures, like One Rank, One Pension (OROP), and the sanction of a National War Memorial in New Delhi.

Both these were emotive demands, amplified through a vocal ex-servicemen community.

The grant of OROP has not satisfied everyone, but most veterans welcome it. In contrast, the Seventh Central Pay Commission has angered serving and retired soldiers, sailors and airmen, and threatens to undo the political gains of OROP.

There is also frustration over insensitive government measures like the slashing of disability pensions (now being reviewed), and the erosion of military status compared to civilian officials.

Consequently, the military community, which had regarded the BJP as an ally, is now more conditional in its support.

Other positives are Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar's admirable commitment to developing and building weapons and defence equipment in country, and the open relationship he fosters with private industrialists, large and small, who intend to spearhead this.

His predecessor, A K Antony, was as committed to indigenisation, but was unwilling to sully his spotless reputation by contacts with grubby capitalists.

Mr Parrikar's good intentions should have translated into enabling policy frameworks, something that he has repeatedly promised.

However, his ministry officials are firmly wedded to the status quo.

Mr Parrikar, unable or unwilling to bring them in line (is he being undermined from the Prime Minister's Office?), has delivered only half-hearted procurement and indigenisation reform.

The long-delayed Defence Procurement Policy of 2016 (DPP-2016) has some innovation, such as the preferential procurement category of 'Indian Designed, Developed and Manufactured,' which would distinguish truly 'Made in India' equipment from kit that actually has a foreign address to its intellectual property.

Yet, DPP-2016 is by no means the crisp, result-oriented handbook that Mr Parrikar wanted to liberate procurement from cumbersome, dead procedure.

Instead DPP-2016, like its predecessors from 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2013, remains a weightlifter's tool and a bureaucrat's delight, filled with opportunities for delaying the acquisition of vitally needed equipment.

Instead of ramming through change like the go-getter he is, Mr Parrikar has tied his own hands by placing reform at the mercy of numerous committees.

First, the Dhirendra Singh committee, headed by a former government secretary, produced a 264-page report on defence procurement reform, including Mr Modi's slogan-of-the-moment, 'Make in India.'

Then, to implement the committee's central recommendation on nominating private sector 'strategic partners' (SPs), who would be the automatic, go-to manufacturers in their various fields (aircraft, helicopters, warships, armoured vehicles, etc), the V K Aatre Task Force was set up.

To this day, not a single SP has been created, even as foreign aerospace vendors such as Boeing and Saab wait bewildered, wondering when they will know which Indian company would be nominated SP for manufacturing aircraft in India.

Instead, every project goes through a complex tendering process that inevitably means years of delay.

Death by committee seems to be the fate of other badly needed measures too.

Overall defence reform has been farmed out to the Lieutenant General D B Shekatkar committee. Expect another voluminous report that will gather dust.

After jihadi militants leap-frogged perimeter security in attacking the Pathankot air base on New Year 2016, Lieutenant General Philip Campose headed a task force to examine perimeter defence in military encampments.

Meanwhile, another committee under former home secretary Madhukar Gupta examined border management. It is not clear why!

The Indian Army knows well how to defend a perimeter, or seal a border. The problem is lax implementation, something that requires stern enforcement, not a committee, to correct.

Mr Parrikar must stop compiling reports and start preparing action plans that are restricted to bullet points on a single page.

Most of the BJP's manifesto promises -- manpower issues, military justice reform, even indigenisation -- are inter-agency processes. Therefore, the government as a collective must be committed to change, and the PMO, to enforce it.

If this does not happen in the second half of the BJP's term, the party will have compromised its national security credentials, and severely damaged Indian credibility as an emerging bulwark of Asian regional security.

IMAGE: Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar addresses a press conference in Panaji. Photograph: PTI Photo

Ajai Shukla
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