Policy in doldrums

Defence matters

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s weakness for grandiose plans has been a defining characteristic of his nearly four-year-old government. The latest one, though modest compared to Digital India, Skill India et al, is the Defence Planning Committee (DPC) to be headed by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. The task of the committee is to prepare doctrines to define military objectives, look after military and security strategy, prepare capability plans and speed up defence equipment acquisitions. It is an impressive agenda, and it is to be assumed that it was announced in the last lap of the government’s five-year term because the government wonks had been working at it at least for the last three years.

It would be useful to recall that former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had set up what was called the National Security Council (NSC) with the then national security advisor Brajesh Mishra as its head. It was a three-tier structure comprising the National Security Advisory Board and the Strategic Policy Group. Apart from this, there was the Joint Intelligence Committee, which was part of the government’s general security policy architecture. It would be churlish to question the usefulness of these arrangements.

The proposed arrangement of the Modi regime seems to be more oriented towards keeping the armed forces in the loop of overall strategic policy, and it could supplement, rather than supplant, the Vajpayee set-up of the NSC.

What is worrying is that despite claims, the Modi government has been quite tardy in responding to the needs of the armed forces, especially armaments and equipment. The unfinished Rafale deal serves as a good example. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has been looking to acquire a medium multi-role combat aircraft for more than a decade. The government and the IAF seemed to zero in on Rafale, the French fighter jet. When Modi took over, it seemed he had other plans in his mind. So, on his visit to France in April 2015, it appeared that he made this peremptory announcement keeping in mind the urgency to boost the diminishing strength of fighter planes in the IAF. It turns out that he wanted to keep the options open and did not want to be tied down to the Rafale deal which not quite sealed.

That was fair enough. Every government has the right to review the decisions of the predecessor and make its own choice. But the Modi government does not seem to have made clear its choice. It has not found an alternative to Rafale. It can be justifiably argued that if the previous UPA government spent two terms in office without arriving at a definite conclusion, Modi government cannot be faulted for still pondering over the alternative to the Rafale.

The hesitancy and tentativeness of the Modi government over Rafale are tied to the general thinking that India should produce its own defence requirements, that it should become a defence manufacturing hub and that private industry should be an important player in this. It can be said that it is an idea whose time has come if India wants to be part of the “big powers club”. There would be an ideological criticism of this idea which, is natural. But if the idea of an expanded defence manufacturing hub is to be entertained, clearly it will take more than five years. As a matter of fact, it would need a gestation period of at least 25 years. It should begin somewhere, sometime.

Unfortunately, the Modi government is only toying with the idea and it is not able to get it going because of the weaknesses, limitations and vulnerabilities of the Indian private sector. The private sector in India does not spend on research and development, which is the sine qua non of competitive arms manufacturing. The government, too, will have to spend on R&D through independent laboratories as well as universities, which is what the United States does. Team Modi has not understood the enormity of the task, and that is why decisions are not being made.

The controversy over the Rafale deal should not be over whether there was corruption over price as the Congress is trying to desperately establish, which the government is strenuously countering. The controversy is a distraction from the main failure of the Modi government: its inability to decide how to go about this business of creating an arms manufacturing hub in the country.

The BJP as a good right-wing party would not be averse to creating the “military-industrial complex” – a pejorative term by none other than former US president Dwight Eisenhower, a general and a conservative to boot, but it seems to recognise that it does not have the wherewithal to create it. And it does not have the intellectual honesty to admit that the Indian industry as it exists today cannot do it.

The idea that Indian firms should get into production arrangements with foreign arms manufacturers seems pragmatic and it could serve as a stepping stone. But it remains to be seen whether countries with advanced armament technology would be willing to share it with India. The Indian private sector can hope to play a key role in the defence ancillary manufacturing as it is already doing something in the aeronautic and space technology segments.

The conviction has taken root in the Indian establishment that the country cannot become a global power unless it is also a military power. China has already understood the proposition and it has been working at it for more than four decades now.

India has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to pursue the option of making its own arms, and not depend on others.

The Indian strategic community is rather a timid one. It follows the thinking of the government of the day instead of throwing up ideas. There is a need for an open debate as to how India should pursue its goal of great power status.

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(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)

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Policy in doldrums

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