May 26 marks eight years since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister of India, and since 2014 a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has been in power at the Centre. Where defence and national security are concerned, the people of India have been told that this government is sufficiently alert and effective in protecting national interests and territory.
The government has proved particularly adept in wrapping itself around the flag and associating with the military. Unwittingly though while resolving some longstanding issues, other equally baffling problems have been created.
The government has delivered, for instance, on its ‘One Rank, One Pension’ promise — a nettlesome issue previous governments kicked down the road for want of financial resources. In the 2022 defence budget of Rs 5.25 lakh-crore, the Rs 1.19 lakh-crore pensions bill combined with the outgo on payroll expenses exceeds the spend on force modernisation and maintenance costs. Should this trend continue, India will soon be able to afford either an adequately sized force, or the weapons to equip it supported by minimal stocks of spares and ammo — not both.
It may be recalled that based on the projected economic growth rate, and assumption of annualised 10 percent increase the defence budget was expected to reach the 3 percent GDP level recommended by the 11th Finance Commission by 2004. In reality, the defence budget has stagnated at the 2-plus percent of GDP level, and budgetary increases have barely kept pace with inflation. The result: No buck, no bang! Still the armed services have managed somehow to contend with live, disputed, borders with China and Pakistan. How well? Don’t ask.
There is a simple two-pronged solution that has not so far occurred to the Government of India. First, to match the military manpower cuts, the strength of 400,000 ‘defence civilians’ employed by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) should be slashed by half. India needs DRDO scientists, engineers, and the like, but can do without the horde of peons, clerks, stenographers, and section officers clogging up the MOD and other government offices everywhere. Official business conducted through a safeguarded computer network will eliminate the hopeless files-system and the endless numbers of babus associated with it, and coffee/tea machines can replace peons, and improve the MOD’s dismal operating efficiency.
Second, the defence civilian pensions should be shifted to the Government of India administration pensions account, thereby, at a stroke, freeing up roughly 80 percent of the defence pensions bill monopolised by retired defence civilians. It is monies the armed services can utilise to sharpen their war-fighting capability.
Through these two steps the Prime Minister can be credited for, (1) modernising the Indian military, making it razor-sharp, without raising the defence allocation, (2) digitising and de-bureaucratising the MOD (as a test bed for upgrading the government’s conduct of business), and; (3) removing the demeaning caste-like hierarchy featuring low-grade workers.
The other major change in the defence sphere is the drive to make India self-reliant in armaments. Again, Modi had the right idea with his aatmnirbharta policy. Except, in the years since he mooted it, there has been more confusion and drift than genuine progress; a situation not improved by a series of updated defence procurement procedure documents issued by the MOD that regularly trip up Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and ministry officials as much as they do the military brass and public and private sector defence industrial companies.
No one is quite sure what aatmnirbharta means. Do foreign companies producing dated military products (F-16 fighter plane, say) fit the guidelines? But doesn’t that undercut the objective? To compound the confusion, Singh in the past year has released lists of military goods the armed services can no longer import, including major weapons systems such as helicopters, artillery guns, warships, and submarines. It is supposed to encourage in-country research, design, development and production of advanced weaponry, and support systems, save the country tens of billions of dollars in hard currency, seed a vibrant defence industrial ecosystem to meet the armed services’ equipment needs, to generate export revenues, and have a multiplier effect on the rest of the economy.
Singh’s negative lists, prima facie, suggest the government wants results fast, to obtain which it is prepared to throw all concerned parties into deep water, and hope they learn to swim. This, incidentally, is the correct approach to shock the armed services, the MOD, and defence public sector units, habituated to weapons systems screw-drivered from imported completely knocked down (CKD) and semi-knocked down (SKD) kits, out of their licensed manufacture comfort zone.
Denied the import option, the military will have to take ownership of indigenous weapons projects and, crucially, prepare to fight with Indian-designed armaments that may not initially meet the foreign weapons standard. It is an unavoidable stage in making aatmnirbharta work.
The Modi years to-date have seen a refreshingly bold departure from the past when the government seemed unwilling to deal with the two main tasks at hand, namely, the pensions issue that had the entire military community up in arms, and the more debilitating matter of reliance on foreign arms.
The solution for the first problem was enabled by the government’s readiness to sequester the necessary funds and take a financial hit, and for the second, was the decision to kickstart the Indian defence industrial economy by closing off the imports channel, and incentivising the public sector and private sector companies with promise of full order books. India may finally be on the way, hiccups apart, to consolidating its military power.
Bharat Karnad is Distinguished Fellow at the United Service Institution of India and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Policy Research. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.