(by AK Singh)
Amongst great expectations, after a landslide win, PM Narendra Modi was sworn in as India’s Prime Minister on 26 May 2014. One was fortunate to be amongst the many who were witness to the swearing-in, as the Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands. On 4 June 2014, I was granted a call to the PM, where I briefed him on the islands and the issues that challenge us.
In addition, I took the opportunity to brief him on major issues, namely, the armed forces, and also presented a paper detailing the same. Prominent were two issues, which I highlighted – the construction of a National War Memorial, and the appointment of a CDS along with the Integrated Theatre Commands. The PM, who is always a very patient listener, assured that these two issues were on his mind, and also on his party, the BJP’s, agenda.
Modi Has Delivered On Major Defence Initiatives
It has taken five years, but the PM has delivered on both these major initiatives, which had tested the nation’s patience over decades, and have been greatly welcomed across the country. This article aims to assess the performance of the government, on the completion of its first year in its second term, with specific reference to national security and defence.
Two landmark events preceded Modi 2.0 in February 2019, which conveyed the government’s focus and resolve on national security:
The National War Memorial issue: First proposed in 1960, the Union Cabinet passed a proposal to build the National War Memorial in October 2015. A befitting memorial located near India Gate was unveiled by PM Modi on 25 February 2019 – as he lit the eternal flame, a grateful nation paid homage to all the brave hearts who had laid down their lives since Independence, protecting India in wars and conflicts. A solemn pledge had been fulfilled.
The Balakot airstrikes; Pakistan put on notice: In the early hours of 26 February 2019, Indian warplanes crossed the line of control in J&K, and fired guided bombs in the vicinity of the town of Balakot, deep inside Pakistan. Confirming the airstrike, India characterised it to be a pre-emptive strike directed against a terrorist training camp, in retaliation to the Pulwama suicide bomb attack, which killed about 40 CRPF jawans. India’s bold response in Balakot set a ‘new normal’ in dealing with Pakistan’s proxy war, and reaffirmed space for a conventional response. While Pakistan may not change tack so easily, it may be difficult for Pakistan to cross India’s threshold, unmindful of the likely response. It was strategic signalling underlining that India will retaliate where its core security interests are undermined.
Chief of Defence Staff; Department of Military Affairs & Integrated Theatre Commands – A Game Changer
The announcement by the prime minister in his Independence Day address, 2019, of the intent to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), was a historic step in defence reforms. The subsequent appointment in December 2019, of General Bipin Rawat, as the first incumbent, and the simultaneous creation of a Department of Military Affairs (DMA) as a separate vertical within the Ministry of Defence with the CDS as its ex officio secretary, are each and together tectonic shifts that have moved the balance in civil military relations to a new normal. With the Integrated Theatre Commands to follow, these reforms have the potential to move the Indian Armed Forces well on the path of becoming a 21st century modern force.
It is now upto the armed forces to seize the opportunity and make these reforms a success – not just for the good of the forces, but also as much for the nation. Another pledge has been fulfilled by the PM.
Reforms in J&K– Changing the Status Quo
In a bold and major announcement on J&K, the Union Home Minister, on 5 August 2019, announced the government’s proposal to revoke Article 370, and proposed the bifurcation of the state into two Union territories – of Jammu & Kashmir, and Ladakh. The J&K Reorganisation Act 2019 was passed by the Parliament in August 2019, and Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which gave special status to J&K, was abolished via a Presidential Order in 2019.
It was clearly an attempt to change the status quo and the atmosphere of fear and drift that was prevalent in J&K.
The move was largely welcomed across the country, but the hurried manner and procedure that was adopted drew some criticism. Those who expected that the move would quickly bring peace to the troubled state are disappointed even after nine months, as Pakistan continues to stoke the fires of the proxy war, albeit, below India’s perceived threshold. It’s still too early to come to a conclusion, but one thing is clear – it’s a long haul, and will require a dynamic strategy to deal with Pakistan and its proxy war, as also with the internal dynamics of the Union Territory.
Creation of Defence Cyber, Space & Special Operations Agencies/Division
Another reform which was long pending was initiated in end October 2018, with the orders to create Defence Cyber and Space Agencies and a Special Operations Division. The heads of these three Tri-Service organisations were posted in May 2019 and the raisings are to be completed by September 2022. Reporting to the permanent Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, this is a major step towards building much needed niche capabilities at the strategic-operational level. In due course of time, we hope, these will be upgraded to the level of a Tri-Services Command.
The government has given an impetus to ‘Make in India’ in defence procurement. The DPP is under revision, a negative import list is being promulgated, and FDI has been enhanced from 49-74 percent. Lack of budgetary support, especially for capital procurement, has affected the modernisation of the armed forces, and we hope the finance minister will follow through on providing a separate budget for indigenously manufactured equipment. The Armed Forces, on their part, will have to redefine intra/inter-service priorities, which is now the charter of the CDS.
Simultaneously, accountability will have to be established for defence research, manufacturing and procurement agencies – both in the public and private sectors; corporatisation of the ordnance factories is a step in that direction.
Development of infrastructure, specially in the forward areas on Indo-China border, has received an impetus, as has defence cooperation with countries of our interest, with long-pending strategic projects being brought to fruition.
Shortfalls and Challenges
The Absent National Security Strategy
Despite a well-recognised need, India has still not formally articulated its National Security Strategy. It is well known that a number of drafts have been attempted, but the political-bureaucratic hierarchy has so far been reluctant to take that step. Maybe an environment of ambivalence would have provided comfort to decision makers in the 20th century, but as India seeks its rightful place on the high table in the 21st century, this is a glaring deficiency. It’s not a difficult proposition, and a finalised draft can be circulated in a matter of months. We sincerely hope that, under Modi 2.0, this will see the light of day soon.
With defence taking centre stage in security affairs, it is axiomatic that one of the Deputy NSAs be appointed from a defence background in lieu of the military advisor to the NSA.
A Dynamic Strategy to Deal With Pakistan
A long-term dynamic strategy is needed to deal with Pakistan. Whilst Balakot may have defined the threshold of India’s patience, Pakistan continues to foment trouble below that threshold. The present strategy of not talking to Pakistan seems to have run its course. With Pakistan’s troubles domestically and internationally mounting by the day, an opportune time for engagement may not be too far off. With the immense support PM Modi enjoys, some bold and dynamic steps may be in order.
Amongst many fallouts, two are most pertinent for national security:
Curtailing the Defence Budget: Whilst a short term curtailment may be justified, the long term security challenges are formidable, and growing by the day. Any temptation to lower our guard by cuts in the defence budget is fraught with risks.
The mass exodus of migrant labour back to their villages: Apart from highlighting the inadequacies of our systems, this has also brought regionalism to the fore, where an individual is being identified more by his state than through a pan-national identity. Along with the heightened ‘India-Bharat’ dissonance, this may have serious repercussions for national security, which will need to be watched and analysed.
A few issues with reference to the armed forces, like the non-grant of NFU (which has been granted to all other equivalent services) need to be resolved and harmonised early during the current government’s tenure.
Modi 2.0 has had a dynamic and promising start with reference to national security and defence. Through its actions, the government under PM Modi has made it clear that defence reforms is a political responsibility, and the political leadership under him will fulfil its obligations. The next four years appear to be promising .
(Lt Gen AK Singh (Retd) is an erstwhile Lt Governor & Army Commander, and a Distinguished Fellow, CLAWS, and Advisor, Jindal Global University. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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