Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Make the Holy Cows moo!

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 16th Jan 2007

The other day, listening to a dinner conversation between an Indian official and a foreign diplomat, I was struck by how differently each perceived the acrimonious public debate over the Indo-US nuclear deal. While the official saw it as an embarrassing case of laundering dirty linen in public, the diplomat was all praise for the way an esoteric and complicated subject was knowledgably dissected in full public view. If India pulls off a really good deal, concluded the diplomat, it will be because public awareness forced the government to lay down its red lines transparently.

Contrast the raucous N-deal debate with the eerie silence surrounding the finalisation of the government’s single biggest expenditure item in the forthcoming budget: defence. Astonishingly, for a mature democracy, close to Rs 100,000 crores will be disbursed without any public discussion of even the broad direction of Indian defence policy. The Chief of Air Staff admitted, in a press conference last month, that while the MoD has issued him a secret directive on the air force’s long-term direction, it was not for public discussion. The army and navy chiefs too have, in their office safes, copies of the top secret Raksha Mantri’s Operational Directive.

Neither the people of India, nor their elected representatives, nor even parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence, are trusted with any of this. The public’s role in defence, apparently, is only to pay for it. In his last budget speech, the Finance Minister took 87 words to allocate Rs 89,000 crores to defence; in 2005, a Rs 83,000 crore allocation merited 72 words. As holy cows go, this is hard to beat. 

Everyone understands that operational matters must remain secret. But shouldn’t the broad direction of a country’s strategy spring from general public consensus? Take, for example, the vital debate on who should man India’s defence forces: long-service professionals, short-service volunteers who serve 5-7 years, or all citizens of military age serving two years of compulsory national service? Manpower policy is fraught with issues: pensions and salaries, almost 40% of the defence budget, and set to rise further with the Sixth Pay Commission, must be cut down; high-quality individuals must be inducted into defence; and the military’s potential as a nation-building institution must be exploited. 

But instead of publicly examining these vital questions, strategic decision-makers simply brush them aside. As most governments demand, military production functions should show the standard economic input-output relationship. Inputs of capital and labour (soldiers, weaponry and technology) should combine effectively to produce defence output. 

This relationship can never be examined in India. By simply declining to define defence output, except in unquantifiable platitudes like “safety of our citizens” or “protection of our territorial integrity”, the government avoids having to justify the tens of thousands of crores that are pumped into defence.

To make defence spenders more accountable then, defence output must be quantified, which is something that every advanced democracy does. The United Kingdom, for example, has laid down in a 2004 White Paper that the British military must be capable of sustaining two small to medium scale conflicts, in addition to its commitment in Kosovo. The United States is even more transparent. Every four years the Pentagon publishes a Quadrennial Defense Review that specifies a strategic aim and the forces required to sustain it. The latest, QDR 2006, reorienting towards the war on terror, specifies that the US military must be capable of waging a full-scale conventional campaign (such as an attack on Iran) in addition to sustaining a long-duration Iraq-like conflict.

India’s Raksha Mantri must drop nebulous terms like “safety” and “protection” and must clearly lay down quantified outputs, such as “the ability to sustain a war on the western as well as eastern fronts for a period of four weeks”, or “the ability to fight and win a war against Pakistan in three weeks, while defending against a Chinese attack”. This exercise must flow from a realistic assessment of India’s neighbourly relations, its internal security needs, and its leverage with allies and global powers. These quantified aims will then dictate our requirement for forces, technology, equipment and weapons systems. 

But the Raksha Mantri’s Operational Directive contains no such specifics, because it is a political document, and not a military one. Instead of specifying whether India should structure to fight a one-front or a two-front war, for how long, and to what end, the government takes the easy approach: we’ll try to fight a one-front war, but also be prepared for two fronts. For the military, institutionally bound to prepare for the worst, that translates into: prepare to fight Pakistan and China simultaneously, on an open-ended basis, alongside continuing counter-insurgency operations in J&K and the north-east. 

Is it any wonder that 14% of government expenditure goes towards defence? In the absence of public debate and legislative oversight, the armed forces have raised several proposals that, in effect, seek to build force levels even higher than what we already have today. India is malnourished, impoverished, under-developed, under-educated and lacking in basic health facilities. But it is secure against every possible threat.

The holy cow of the nuclear establishment suffered no damage from being brought into the open. The holy cow of defence spending must graze in the public gaze too.

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