The sweeping win of the Bhartiya Janata Party in the Indian general elections surprised many, perhaps exceeding expectations of the BJP itself. It won 303 seats on its own, out of 543 that went to polls in the lower house of Parliament. The Lok Sabha has 545 seats, but two members are nominated. The election on a third seat from the state of Tamil Nadu was countermanded and will go to polls later.
But the return of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was predicted even before the attack in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir, in February and India’s response by bombing terrorist infrastructure at Balakot, Pakistan, within two weeks.
The situation now is that the opposition stands decimated. The absence of a viable opposition in a democracy is a double-edged weapon. The plus side is that policies can be implemented speedily without undue roadblocks. The corollary to this is that any failure to implement policies will be attributed to the BJP and Prime Minister Modi. They can no longer afford to blame their political opponents.
The negative aspect to such an overwhelming electoral mandate is an autocracy where advice and consent will be considered redundant. Officials and professionals will prefer to stay quiet or proffer advice to please the leader. This will also shut doors for essential policy changes when the same political party continues to rule with an absolute majority.
In the previous government, the economy had uppermost focus while defense was largely confined to weapon-systems procurement. Annual defense allocations were the lowest since the 1962 China-India war, impacting combat capabilities. If it was a calculated risk, it worked. But if it was deliberate, then this could persist.
Ignoring threats to security is dangerous. No nation can be assertive and protect its national objectives without credible military muscle. Without hard power, soft power is useless. India must also bridge the adverse sub-conventional asymmetry vis-à-vis adversaries, though a halfhearted beginning has been made to establish a special operations division, seven years after being recommended by a government-appointed committee.
India has voids in its “national security strategy” and “strategic defense review.” These voids must be speedily filled up. In the absence of this, defense procurement has been on ad hoc basis, including long-term procurement plans. Additionally, defense budget allocations must be preceded by a pre-budgetary process of weighing operational capacity with present and future threat evaluations.
The government is yet to appoint a chief of defense staff (CDS) even though this key recommendation was made and approved by a government-appointed Group of Ministers 19 years ago. The Ministry of Defense is manned by bureaucrats, without any military professionals. The only tri-service command structure, Headquarters Integrated Defense Staff (HQ-IDS), established in 2001 with the aim of being part of the MoD, remains isolated from any major decision-making body.
The new government must appoint a CDS and merge HQ-IDS with the Ministry of Defense. This will help fill up the void of institutionalized strategy formulation where service professionals can work closely with the civilian bureaucrats. India needs a full-time and resolute defense minister with knowledge of military matters. Such a minister should be formally tasked with the defense of India, replacing the British India legacy of a civilian defense secretary assigned to the job.
The gargantuan governmental-defense-industrial complex with a negligible output despite guzzling some 70% of overall expenditure toward defense needs to be addressed quickly. Part of this can be achieved by the private sector. It will be prudent to combatize civilian defense employees who on an average cost five times as much as their uniformed serving and veteran counterparts. This would ensure better integration and save money.
Governments dependent on the bureaucracy have been seeking to lower the status and prestige of military soldiers historically. This creates major issues of morale and also opens the door for the politicization of the military. This must end and the soldier’s status and prestige restored. There is no reason for a “strong government” to be subservient to the bureaucracy. Lawmakers not confident of assigned portfolios should take technical advisers rather than relying solely on bureaucrats who are placed in these decision-making positions. Former president Pranab Mukherjee has publicly stated that bureaucrats are the biggest hindrance to the nation’s development. Subhash Bhamre, a junior defense minister in the last government, similarly briefed Prime Minister Modi.
The previous government under Modi showed little resolve to tackle these issues. The record of the MoD was particularly pathetic in taking military widows and disabled soldiers to court for their pensions, employing a battery of lawyers paid out of defense funds. Ironically, the ministry has not won a single case to date – this despite the last defense minister, Nirmala Sitaraman, announcing that the welfare of soldiers and their families would be one of her top priorities. Even the ministry’s department of ex-serviceman has no representation from the army, navy or air force.
The pay and allowances of armed forces have gone down below those of police forces. The promise of one rank, one pension given by the BJP in 2014 was only partially fulfilled. A report by the government-appointed one-man commission to resolve anomalies in the one rank, one pension scheme has been kept under wraps. Replying to a query in Parliament about this report, the defense minister responded that another committee had been appointed to look into recommendations of this one-man committee. The non-functional upgrade allowance is denied to armed forces on spurious grounds.
The challenges to India are diverse and expanding. Threats to national security cannot be wished away citing diplomacy, dialogue and a growing economy. A nation with inadequate militarily strength can’t even bargain at the table from a position of strength. Combat capacity must be commensurate with the war-waging capacity of adversaries, including if the two share a defense pact. This is important because intentions can change overnight, as is being witnessed in regions around the world. India must be strong both conventionally and sub-conventionally. Border control management must be reviewed, placing all forces in sensitive areas directly under military command and all international borders under the MoD.
Given the mandate enjoyed by the new Modi government, addressing all the above issues is very possible within next five years provided the government has the will. The usual cry of what has been going on for past 70 years cannot be undone in five to 10 years should be de-linked from defense of the country.