The Indian armed forces should be liberated from the stranglehold of the generalist babus of the MoD
FOR over a quarter of a century the Indian Army has desperately needed artillery guns. But no matter how hard it tried it couldn't get them. One reason for this, of course, was the aftermath of the Bofors scandal, which became the standard excuse of all concerned not to take any decision at all. There was an element of disingenuousness in this posturing. For, despite the commissions worth Rs 64 crore distributed to the still unnamed beneficiaries, the Swedish gun served this country superbly during the Kargil war. Ironically, it was at the peak of this fight that the Army discovered to its dismay that it was running out of ammunition because of the obsession of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to blacklist all suppliers it suspected or disliked. Ultimately, we had to buy the ammunition from South Africa at thrice the normal price. Even this made no difference to the civilian bureaucracy in the MoD and its political bosses. Indecision remained the ruling doctrine of both. Sadly, A. K. Antony, a very fine man with an enviable reputation for personal probity, who has been the longest-serving Defence Minister so far, became the biggest hurdle to decision-making. By doing nothing he was sure of retaining his image as "St. Antony".
Against this bleak backdrop it is greatly to be welcomed that within a few days after his appointment as Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has ended the paralysis over the procurement of artillery guns by clearing the decks for acquiring 814 long-range mounted artillery guns to fill a serious gap in its equipment and, therefore, in its overall capability. The cost will be Rs 15,570 crore. The deal was approved after a serious consideration at a Defence Acquisition Council meeting that Mr Parrikar presided over for the first time. He also said that the DAC should meet oftener than it has done so far even if its agenda is rather short. My first thought on hearing this was that Prime Minister Narendra Modi should have handed over the Defence Ministry to the former Goa Chief Minister while forming his Cabinet on May 26. Mr Parrikar has laid down that that the acquisition of artillery guns — like all future procurements — will take place within the framework of the Prime Minister’s “Make-in-India” concept.
While the Army will buy 100 guns off the shelf of the foreign vendor, the remaining 714 will be manufactured here. Global tenders will be floated soon, and the Indian manufacturer will have to "tie up" with the selected foreign vendor for building the gun. Several Indian companies such as the Tatas, Larsen & Toubro and Kalyani, as well as the public sector Ordnance Factory Board have already produced prototypes of 155mm, 52 calibre guns. They are all likely to take part in the bid.
So far, so good. But the real point is that the defenders of the country's freedom and frontiers will be greatly handicapped in discharging their duty until the makers of policy on national security attend to the fundamental task of reforming the higher management of the defence system. Civilian control over the military is, of course, the basic principle in every democracy. Indeed, even in China the doctrine of the “Party controlling the Gun” has prevailed since the time of Mao Zedong. The present Chinese President, Xi Jinping, has reinforced it. But in a democracy like India the civilian supremacy does not, and must not, mean the supremacy of civil servants. It is long overdue that the Indian armed forces — absolutely apolitical, unlike the armies of some of our neighbours — should be liberated from the stranglehold of the generalist babus of the MoD. In recent years when a service chief informally and politely told the then Prime Minister that he and his two opposite numbers regretted that they were not asked to be present at a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the reply he got was: “Well, you were represented by the Defence secretary”! This pattern has to end.