Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman does not seem to have done justice to the country’s defence forces and their preparedness, which, ironically, she was looking after as the Defence Minister during Narendra Modi’s first term as the Prime Minister. In her maiden budget that she presented to the Parliament on Friday, she has allocated Rs 431,010.79 crore to the Defence Ministry amounting 15.47 per cent of the total Budget. If one takes away the huge pensions for the veterans and the salaries of the civilians working in the Ministry of Defence, the real allocations amount to Rs. 3.18 lakh crore, just 1.5 percent of the GDP of the year 2019-20. And of this, Rs 210,682.42 has been meant for revenue allocation (pay and allowances of manpower) and a scanty Rs 108,248.80 crore for capital (modernisation and acquisitions) allocation. In other words, the revenue allocation is double of capital allocation, a skewed ratio that is not in tune with the needs and aspirations of a great and strong nation that Modi wants India to be in the comity of nations.
All told, the ills afflicting the nation’s security are very well-known. Every year, we come across the reports of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence and the Comptroller and Auditor General, listing these ills. Despite our Balakot –air strikes inside Pakistan recently, the facts remains that India’s Air Force desperately needs hundreds of combat planes and helicopters to replace its Soviet-era aircraft. The Indian Navy badly wants a dozen submarines to counter the expanding presence of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean. And the Indian Army, which is supposed to be preparing itself for eventualities in the borders against Pakistan and China, is facing shortages in everything from assault rifles to surveillance drones and body armour. However, all these have been on hold for years because the government, both past and present , has not been able to set aside large sums for capital outlays, because most of the defence expenditure goes on salaries and pensions for a 1.4 million standing military, the world’s second largest after China.
Of course, the Modi government in India is inevitably confronted with the two principal challenges of defence and development. Both the goals are equally dear to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP), but then the problem with a developing country such as India, and that too at a time when the global financial health is not in best of conditions, is that finding resources for a strong defence is a tricky and sensitive matter. India needs speedy economic development, and it is equally imperative that its armed forces are stronger than ever before to face the myriad challenges in a volatile region from Australia to South Africa on the one hand and from Japan to Israel on the other.
This region, marked by terrorism, hegemonic ambitions and religious extremism, needs to be stable and peaceful for the promotion and consolidation of India’s vital national interests. There cannot be two opinions that for a long-term point of view, defence and development of a country are two sides of the same coin. India cannot be a big economic power if its security environment is not healthy enough. Highly developed economies such as Japan or for those in West Europe may not be great military powers, but the fact remains that their economic development after the World War II has been critically dependent on the American security umbrella. India, fiercely proud of its strategic autonomy (and rightly so), does not have this luxury of having a protective umbrella.
Viewed dispassionately, the Modi government’s record in strengthening the defence infrastructure has not been all that inspiring. Equally uninspiring is the 2019-manifesto of the BJP on defence, though ironically it has given the security its top billing in its scheme of things. In fact, compared to its manifesto in 2014, which was very rich in content and clear in resolve, this time the manifesto of the ruling party is really pedestrian and very prosaic on the government’s plans such as “zero tolerance to terrorism’, “combating infiltration”, “self-reliance in defence sector” and “modernisation of police forces’. Only mentioning them in the manifesto without any concrete plan of actions is really banal, something every other political party does also.
If the progress report of the Modi government in the field of country’s defence remains inadequate, notwithstanding our great success in carrying out surgical strikes inside Pakistan, standing up to the Chinese designs in Doklam and fulfilling the long standing demand of the former soldiers for one rank one pensions, then it is mainly because our forces do not have the required platforms and weapons on the one hand and the updated decision-making structure in the Ministry of Defence, something that the BJP had promised in its 2014 manifesto to work on. Similarly, in 2014, the party had promised to “revise and update it [nuclear doctrine], to make it relevant to challenges of current times”. But in 2019, there is no mention of the nuclear weapons programme.
While the BJP manifesto talks of speeding up the purchases of outstanding defence related equipment and weapons, equipping the armed forces with modern equipment and strengthening the strike capability of the armed forces, the fact remains that under the BJP government, the defence budget as a percentage of GDP has fallen to 1.5% — the lowest since 1962. According to Amit Cowshis, who not long ago occupied a very high position in the Ministry of defence as a bureaucrat, the proportion of the defence budget to the total central government expenditure (CGE), has not been better under the Modi-government than what it was under Manmohan Singh. The past five years may have been marginally better than the preceding five statistically, but that seems to be more on account of implementation of the recommendations of the seventh pay commission and one-rank-one-pension rather than being a part of any sustained effort to meet the operational requirement of the armed forces. From 16.33 per cent in 2008-09, the share of the total defence expenditure (including pensions) came down to 15.21 per cent in 2014-15. The change of government in 2014 did lead to a very marginal hike in the outlay for the year 2014-15 to 15.89 of the CGE. It rose further and remained between 16.75 to 17.45 per cent during the next four years, for the reasons mentioned earlier, but again came down to 16.56 in 2018-19. For 2019-20, it accounts for 15.48 of the CGE. The clock thus seems to have turned a full circle.
If the recent history is any indication, the Ministry of Finance (MoF) usually plays the spoiler role in the acquisition process of the MoD. The MoF, which has its own defence wing, does have the authority to scuttle the acquisition plans under the plea of economising the expenditure. This pattern needs a change. As is well-known, one of the principal woes of Indian armed forces has been that though they cherish and salute the most cardinal feature of our democratic polity – the political supremacy over the military – the bureaucrats, rather than the political executive, dominate and dictate the military. In other words, the generalists in the MoD and MoF have always preserved their advantageous position against the military encroachment. As a result, India continues to remain one of the few major countries where headquarters of the three services are not officially integrated into the Indian government and remain “Attached” or “Subordinate” offices.
Nor for that matter we have a Chief of defence Staff (CDS) to provide single-point advice to the minister of defence. Interestingly, the opposition Congress party in its manifesto for the just concluded elections had promised to create the post of CDS, whereas the BJP, in contrast to its repeated assertions in favour of such a post, is conspicuously silent on the matter this time. Similarly, unlike in the past, the BJP this time has not envisioned a broader view on national security by avoiding issues of data, cyber, financial, communication and trade security.
Modi talks of good governance. And the Indian military needs good governance like never before. In fact, higher reforms have been a pressing need of the country for a long time. The Indian armed forces need a sympathetic Prime Minister , a proactive Defence Minister and supportive Finance Minster to make that happen. Hopefully, Prime Minister Modi, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Finance Minister Sitharaman will not disappoint the forces by their deeds, not words.
By Prakash Nanda