A game of monopoly

As a workaday politician, the average defence minister, his skills limited to spouting self-reliance in defence, is even more clueless

The military variant of that old saw about India being a rich country with poor people owing to god-awful governance is that there is no real dearth of monies allotted to defence but every reason to doubt these are always spent wisely, or even well.

The sustained downturn of the economy has compelled the finance ministry to warn the ministry of defence (MoD) of a budgetary cut of almost `10,000 crore in 2013-14. Finance minister P. Chidambaram’s forthright statement, that “if the (Budget) is cut for this year, it is cut; you cannot do anything about it,” was in the context of defence minister A.K. Antony demanding `45,000 crore in addition to the `1.93 lakh crore Budget in the last fiscal, and his more recent attempt to talk up the direness of the threat from China, besides Pakistan, now militarily ensconced in nearby Gwadar. The fact that this is unlikely to impress the North Block into loosening the purse strings notwithstanding, the three armed
services will push their separate expenditure priorities.
The Air Force will emphasise, in the main, the acquisition of Rafale for its MMRCA (medium-range, multi-role combat aircraft) programme, four squadrons of the “super” Su-30 for the China front, airborne warning and control systems and tankers, roughly in that order. The Army will push for a mountain strike corps, a combat helicopter fleet to fill its newly formed aviation arm and 155-mm artillery; and the Navy will want the ongoing warship induction schedule to be on track and the import of yet another conventional submarine. This is where things get appalling. The limited resources will ensure the three services remain dissatisfied. But how is inter se prioritisation achieved with the Indian government lacking a mechanism for it?
In the absence of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) who, keeping in mind the security threats and challenges, would rank-order the individual service expenditure programmes in a scheme of genuinely integrated procurements, the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) is the only available forum for this task. Ideally, the COSC is where the competing demands and requirements would be professionally debated and discussed threadbare with the three service chiefs at the end of this arduous process agreeing amicably on a single tri-service list of acquisition priorities in descending level of importance. In practice, however, every member of the COSC insists on his service’s needs requiring immediate sanction which, if
conceded, would leave the fighting abilities of the other two services in the ditch.
Being equal in rank and there being no protocol and rank-wise superior CDS in the chain of command, the service chiefs feel no need to reconcile their differing priorities. The traditional Monday morning meetings of the COSC during the budgeting period, therefore, continue to be what they are for the rest of the year — pleasant meetings of military brass engaged in banter and the business of consuming tea and samosas. According to a former service chief who was chairman, COSC, he could devote only 15 per cent of his working hours to consider the demands of the other services, as most of the time was taken up by his own service-related interests and issues. He conceded that as chairman, he favoured his own service, aware that the chiefs of the other services would do the same when occupying this largely ceremonial post held in rotation. The COSC, in other words, doesn’t help in untangling issues or leaving the civilians in the MoD bureaucracy less befuddled.
In the event, the job of slicing a bigger piece of the defence budgetary pie falls on the senior staff in the service headquarters. This they do by pitching their demands to the joint secretary dealing with the concerned service, before the chiefs do much the same thing with the defence secretary and, more directly, to the defence minister. Because most generalist IAS officers in the defence ministry have no technical competence, nor any feel for the subject, in order to judge which service deserves to get what, leave alone why it should be prioritised, the difficult decisions are usually kicked up to the defence minister. As a workaday politician, the average defence minister, his skills limited to spouting platitudes about patriotism and self-reliance in defence, and reassuring all and sundry that the armed forces are prepared to meet all threats, is even more clueless. This prompts each of the service chiefs to try and personally hard sell his service’s needs to him in extreme terms. Even a seasoned politician may be intimidated by this tactic the first time around. But with each passing year he becomes inured to the fearful scenarios being painted if this or that acquisition doesn’t come through. In the event, he arbitrarily alights on the procurement priorities, allowing all manner of extraneous factors to come into play, including constituency-servicing imperatives and political pressures from the top reaches of his own party to buy this or that piece of hardware. Bureaucrats then generate ex post facto rationales for the decisions so taken.
Obviously, there is something drastically wrong with this system, starting with the missing role of the political institutions in articulating the primary, secondary and tertiary threats; laying down clear guidelines for strategies to deal with each of them; outlining the force structures in the short, medium and long term; and tackling meta-strategic issues, such as establishing a programme for sharply reduced dependence on foreign-sourced weapons platforms and making the armed services responsible for the time-bound indigenisation programmes. Doing all this is the responsibility of the Cabinet in the more advanced democracies, with the legislature exercising severe oversight.
In the Indian setup, however, the first three roles are, for all intents and purposes, expropriated by the military services, which adhere only lightly to conventional security directives from government because the bulk of the politicians are disinterested in national security and foreign policy issues. The government of the day, in the event, mans the financial spigot, MoD bureaucrats concern themselves with the processes of decisionmaking, traffic in files, and act as facilitators of corruption (and should a scam surface, the Central Bureau of Investigation is there to provide comic relief, playing the dim-witted desi Keystone cops), and Parliament, as always, is a rubber stamp.

The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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