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Defensive stances

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Now is one of the rare occasions when the media notices the armed forces. The issue of the retiring army chief’s date of birth and the controversy over illegal phone tapping are the pegs on which Outlook hangs a good report on the morale of India’s armed forces:

Writing in the latest issue of Salute, a magazine about the armed forces, Narender Sisodia, a former director general of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and an IAS officer who served in the MoD, says, “Many in the armed forces believe that since Independence, their status has been systematically downgraded. While no one questions the supremacy of the elected political leadership, there is acute resentment about the civilian bureaucracy.” The areas of friction he identifies are the same as those echoed by army officers:

  1. The non-inclusion of the defence forces in matters of security policymaking.
  2. Insufficient allocations for defence budgets. There is a perception that the civilian authority does not fully appreciate the gravity of threats to national security and tends to neglect legitimate demands. This attitude, Sisodia says, has adversely affected India’s defence modernisation and made it vulnerable to external threats.
  3. The army’s reservations about the greater frequency with which it is called to intervene in internal security problems.
  4. The issues of pay and perquisites and warrant of precedence have long been sources of acute dissatisfaction.
  5. Affording a greater weightage to the armed forces’ viewpoints in decisions relating to procurement and accomodating concerns at cumbersome procedures and delays.

Vijay Singh, former defence secreta[r]y till 2009, feels that the mistrust has much to do with the mindset in the forces, which have not accepted the fact that the defence minister takes decisions based on advice and inputs from the civilian bureaucracy. “Anything that does not go their way is attributed to bureaucratic intrigue. While the interaction at the top level is fine, below that there is much acrimony. I concede that the MoD needs officers of a high professional calibre because they sometimes ask ill-informed questions of the military establishment. But the civilian bureaucracy is more democratic and transparent in its functioning.” He thinks that the V.K. Singh saga is a fit case for a study in civil-military relations as they stand today.

Perhaps Mr. Singh’s statements are perfectly true. Nevertheless, that does not absolve anyone from the need to examine the five issues raised.

It is a simple matter to gather facts about the second issue. In the union budget of 2011-12, 13% of the allocation went to defence. This is about INR 1,63,505 crores. For comparison, recall that 2.1%, ie, INR 26,760 crores went to health. In absolute terms the budget for defence may not be what the armed forces would like to have. However, it is significantly larger than the total government social expense.

Item 4 has long been a sore point in various non-IAS parts of the government set up; under the sixth pay commission the IAS enjoys superior previleges than almost any other part of the government, including doctors, teachers, scientists and armed forces personnel. This is indeed a matter of concern and a hard look needs to be taken at the odd change in policy.

Item 5 also affects all parts of the government. The reasoning behind instituting “cumbersome procedures and delays” is that there should be checks on the spending of public money. However the procedures are put into place precisely because there is gross mismanagement in spite of oversight. This is the reason behind Anna Hazare’s campaign, and also the reason why many arms of the government feel frustrated.

Items 1 and 3 are matters of policy, and the nation is clearly divided on these issues. On item 4 the forces have previously made its point of view known, leading to a change in the way the government is handling the campaign against its poorest tribals. Item 1 was debated and discussed in the years immediately after the independence, but probably needs to be re-examined at least once in every generation.

All the issues raised in the article seem quite legitimate perceptions. Whether one agrees or not, they certainly need to be discussed.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

March 6, 2012 at 3:06 am

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