October 16, 2001


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Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni

By George, he's back!

At the start of the First World War in 1914, Winston Churchill was first lord of the admiralty [equivalent to minister for the navy]. He had taken over that post in 1911 and, during the three years before the war, had been responsible for preparing the Royal Navy for it. He had shaken it out of a 40-year slumber during the reign of Queen Victoria. In league with John Fisher, the dynamic First Sea Lord [the Royal Navy's chief], he had carried out a number of reforms, which included retiring 150 ageing warships worldwide and inducting a fleet of spanking new dreadnoughts.

In the bargain he had become very popular with the Royal Navy. In 1914 Churchill had devised and pushed through a very innovative plan to end the war. This was the forcing of the Dardanelles, linking up with Russia and opening up Germany's southern flank. Unfortunately the plan did not succeed. An able Turkish Army under Kemal Pasha inflicted a humiliating defeat on the British forces. Churchill was held responsible for the debacle and replaced as first lord.

Churchill spent the between-wars years in oblivion, writing books and warning those who would listen about the dangers of Nazism.

When war broke out in 1939 one of the first acts of the British prime minister was to appoint Churchill as the first lord again. A grateful admiralty thereafter told all its ships and establishments by signal, "Winston is back!"

India's defence forces are too unimaginative and too conservative to make such a signal. But there is no doubt that all are delighted to have George Fernandes back as their defence minister. Let us leave ethics apart for the time being. After all each of India's opposition parties have brazened out far bigger and far worse scandals than Tehelka.

In its 50 years of independence India has not been particularly well served by most of its defence ministers. In a country that today spends over Rs 50,000 crore annually on defence, very few have left their stamp on the office. A large number have been time servers or chair warmers. On a number of occasions a busy prime minister has also occupied the position of defence minister, leaving the day-to-day running to a minister of state. Of course, if that minister happened to be someone like Arun Singh then the services had the best of both worlds, a minister who took pains to understand their problems and who also had the PM's ear.

Most ministers, however, remained as ignorant about defence on the day they left the ministry as when they came in. They preferred to become tools in the hands of the babus and interfere in the running of the various services, especially where promotions were concerned or where a quick buck was to be made.

George Fernandes was a different kind of minister. From the very beginning he made an effort to get involved. He heard everyone and read everything that was sent to him. He was not happy visiting Siachen and the forward bases for photo opportunities. He wanted to know the problems of the jawans first hand. In two years he visited Siachen 14 times. On return he did something about it. He discovered that the babus, overruling all army requirements, had never experienced the effects of their decisions and dispatched them there for education. He brought about many other reforms along the way.

In its entire history no defence minister had ever been referred to by his name. Yet like "Winston", everyone knows who "George" is. In just two years George endeared himself to the rank and file of the armed forces with his humility, his approachability and his sincerity of purpose. Yet even George could not finally overcome India's self-serving and rigid bureaucracy. Many of the reforms he wanted to bring about were stymied by either the babus or by the services themselves with their bickering and infighting.

In the aftermath of the Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat controversy, George promised to reform the ministry "within a month". Nearly three years have gone by and no reform is in sight. Even the reforms recommended by the Arun Singh Committee in the post-Kargil period have been watered down considerably. Bickering and dissension within the armed forces have seen the post of chief of defence services being downgraded to that of chief of integrated services, which is nothing more than a glorified director general of defence planning staff with an intelligence wing under him. The National Security Council was torpedoed by the bureaucrats and the present NSC has not the slightest resemblance to the body that was envisaged. The PM's secretary still carries out the job of national security adviser.

George has his job cut out for him. It is to be hoped that he has not entirely lost his reformist zeal.

Two items, both prickly, are waiting to be tackled immediately. The first is sure to invite opposition from the bureaucrats, the second from the armed forces.

The unfinished process of reforming the defence ministry is still on the plate and George must apply his abilities as well as dynamism to see the process through. Each service of the armed forces must act as a department of the ministry and each service head must also have the powers and authority of a secretary of the government. If this results in trimming the powers and wings of the defence secretary, that must be allowed to happen over the howls of the bureaucrats. This reform is long overdue and only a defence minister with the stature of George Fernandes can see it through.

An even more important item awaits George. In the present economic environment and the downturn in the economy worldwide and also in India, we cannot afford a burgeoning defence budget. A gradual slashing is necessary. The days of an arms race with Pakistan are over. Such expensive and unnecessary projects like the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov must be re-examined and slashed if necessary.

During the first few days of his earlier tenure, George brought fresh thinking to his ministry. He showed that he was neither a tool of the bureaucrats nor wanting to be a darling of the armed forces. Many tough decisions remain to be made. George's reputation in the ministry will be made by his ability to take them.

If not at the start of his second tenure, at least by its end we hope the services will say, "Thank God, George was back!"

Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni

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