The elections have concluded, results are almost out, and government formation will be the next stage. Amongst the various portfolios to be announced afresh, the appointment of a gutsy defence minister, stands out for specific attention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The defence ministry saw the maximum shuffle of ministers in the last government. Arun Jaitley officiated twice as the defence minister, in addition to his finance portfolio, Manohar Parrikar remained till being called back to Goa and Nirmala Sitharaman continued till the end of the term of the government.
However, despite multiple promises and increasing threats, the defence budget remained well below desired levels, impacting capability development and preparations for war, including stocks of ammunition.
In an interview, post the nation moving into the election mode, Arun Jaitley as the finance minister admitted that defence was not given its desired share of funds. Crying after the milk has been spilled implied nothing except seeking sympathy for work poorly done. Nirmala claimed that she micromanages the MoD, but results including ongoing court cases and denying the military its dues, signify anything but that.
The nation has given the BJP another opportunity, possibly because of multiple reasons, charisma of Modi being prime, belief that it needs some more time to deliver on its promises and lack of any capable opponent.
It would also be an opportunity for the government to fulfill its promise of strengthening national defence, ensuring that the forces have the wherewithal to deter misadventure plans by any adversary and enhance production of defence capabilities in-house rather than banking on imports.
Reforms within the MoD have been pending for the last two decades. Promises are made by every government, none being fulfilled. Studies are instituted by every government, recommendations received, always the same, yet ignored only because they mention ‘changing the existing system.’ The fear of an imaginary but non-existent coup continues being played to prevent reforms and deny the military its rightful role in national security.
The MoD continues to be bureaucracy dominated, none with even basic understanding of military matters. The gulf between the uniformed and the bureaucracy is widening by the day. The bureaucracy’s only role appears to be ‘deny, prevent and delay’. This must change, if the nation needs to create a force capable of projecting its national power, keeping in status with its international standing and respect.
This should be the primary task of the new Defence Minister. Trust the services and their Chiefs, appoint a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and break the shackles of the MoD, amalgamating the HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) with it. IDS was created to be a part of the MoD, make it so. This one act will change the Indian armed forces, enhance morale and bring about better coordination and more bang for the buck in procurements.
The next important task is to reign in the various institutions directly under the MoD. Ordnance factories, Ex-Servicemen Welfare and Ex-servicemen Contributory Health Schemes.
Morale within the services is dependent on two major factors, firstly the equipment and stores supplied are trustworthy and dependent and secondly on how their veterans are cared for. Ignoring either would be damaging. Shortfalls in ammunition, especially if it is locally manufactured is clearly unacceptable, so also are accidents in peace time training. Pulling up those responsible must be done.
Status and prestige are two aspects which impact the confidence of a soldier. The nation looks upto him at every stage and gives him the respect which he realistically deserves. However, it is the government controlled by the bureaucracy, which seeks to lower his status and prestige at every stage.
The battle for Non-Functional Upgradation (NFU) is linked to that. The soldier does not seek the money which comes with the grant of NFU, but laments when those who are junior in rank and service claim a higher status and grade, due to an artificial increment granted to them, but denied to him. The Chiefs have approached the defence minister on multiple occasions on the issue, yet it remains ignored.
As an Indian you would be aware that the armed forces have never let the country down, whether it be a military action, cross-border operation, seeking to regain own territory or assisting the civil administration during a national calamity. It has always made the Indian flag fly high and proud. However, curtailing its budget over the years has begun creating an imbalance with strong adversaries, who have repeatedly attempted to challenge Indian authority.
The Indian armed forces would deliver, even laying down their lives, despite any equipment held with them, because for them, nothing but the nation comes first. As the head of the MoD, it is your responsibility to ensure that they possess the right equipment and are not impacted by low budgets and slow procurement procedures.
Late President Abdul Kalam had stated that national security and national development go together. Without one, the other is not feasible. Pushing for demands of funds from the finance ministry rests on your shoulders.
The Indian soldier has grown over the years and is more aware. He understands his political bosses better. Photo-ops during Diwali or new years implies nothing to him. He will always be courteous as you have come to his location but would read through you in moments. Be genuine with him, care for him and he would lay his life without a thought.
The Indian armed forces are the best in the world, most professional and capable. They have never been political. That is how they should remain. Push for enacting laws which deny them being made vote banks in future elections.
The world seeks to partner with the Indian military, exercise and learn from them. You as the defence minister would be their de-facto head. Trust them and their leadership. Ignore advice being projected by those who desire to keep them suppressed. Modernize their structures and equipment and care for their status and well-being.
If you do so, you would go down in history well respected, if not, you would be just one amongst many who occupied the chair. Do you have it in you to battle and change the system? If you have it, then accept the mantle. The choice is yours.