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Has the Prime Minister ignored the Service chiefs?

April 11, 2012 11:39 IST

Number of times the prime minister met with the Service chiefs in 2011: 1

Number of times the prime minister met with the Service chiefs in 2012: 0

Seema Mustafa reports why the Services chiefs feel "more and more" distanced from political decision-making about defence issues.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has dispensed with even the necessary formality of convening regular meetings with the three defence chiefs to get a first-hand feedback about the Services.

The average of three to four meetings a year between the prime minister and the Service chiefs was reduced to just one in 2011.

This year not a single meeting has taken place so far despite the controversy surrounding the Indian Army and its modernisation plans.

Defence sources pointed out that over the years the Services have been distanced "more and more" from political decision making about defence issues, with even the customary interactions left in the form of regular meetings between the prime minister and the chiefs of the army, air force and navy being severely curtailed.

The result is that the political leadership has deprived itself of serious considered feedback about the status of the defence forces directly from the chiefs leading to what sources said, was a widening gap in communication.

A case in point in recent weeks was the letter the Chief of Army Staff, General V K Singh, wrote to Prime Minister Singh about the modernisation, or rather the absence of it, in the army.

Although a presentation on the basis of this letter was made to Defence Minister A K Antony, there was and still has not been any direct communication on this issue with Dr Singh.

In view of the fact that Antony is not seen as a particularly decisive minister -- preferring to delay rather than take decisions -- no movement forward has been recorded on the serious issue of modernisation as yet.

Significantly various avenues available to the defence chiefs to have a say in top level strategic decision making have been gradually whittled down by successive governments.

The three chiefs meet the defence minister once a month in meetings attended by the defence secretary, and on occasion by the national security advisor.

Unlike in the past, minutes of these meetings are now recorded, but not circulated to the members. As a result, action taken on suggestions in the meetings also remains blurred, with no circulated record of the proceedings.

This has replaced the old defence minister's committee meetings where the minutes were recorded, circulated before the next meeting, and action taken reported back to the committee.

Defence Minister Antony, while accessible to the chiefs, remains reluctant to record decisions or give direct instructions.

This has created confusion, of the kind visible in the age controversy surrounding General V K Singh as well as the instance where the defence minister refused to heed the army chief's complaint about being offered a bribe, insisting that he should take his own action.

Sources said as per the defence rules, an officer making such a complaint should go to his immediate superior who, in the case of the army chief, is the defence minister.

The defence chiefs were earlier part of the Cabinet Committee on Security. Now they are invited only sporadically. One of the few times where all three chiefs participated was, for instance, a Cabinet review of the security situation after 26/11.

Their participation has thus, dwindled leading to a further disconnect with the civilian arm of the government.

As the outspoken retired Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat put it, 'the intention is clearly to drive us as far away as possible from the system.'

The face off between the defence ministry and the Services, in particular the army, has been widening with no intervention by the political authorities.

Finger pointing has become common, with the army sourcing the 'leak' of General Singh's letter on the modernisation of the army allegedly to bureaucrats in the MoD.

The sources said that after the letter was sent to the prime minister, the MoD, as per the requirements, made a presentation on this to the defence minister. The letter was thus, readily available to many in the MoD's acquisitions branch.

While this is a matter under scrutiny, it is no secret that differences between the bureaucrats and the men in uniform have sharpened considerably since the age controversy with both sides unable or unwilling to bridge the gap.

Prime Minister Singh and Antony have reportedly sent emissaries to persuade General V K Singh at different levels to back off, but no one has called a larger meeting to resolve the differences that are paralysing decision-making in the government on defence matters.

This is despite the fact that both the prime minister and the defence minister were informed by the army chief about his intention to file a statutory complaint beforehand, as well as his decision to move the courts.

Parliament's intervention is thus being welcomed in the Services, with the chiefs to appear before a Parliamentary panel on April 20. This, the sources hoped, would help clear some of the misconceptions about the defence Services.

Seema Mustafa