National security should be a bipartisan issue
It was a reasonable question that a diplomat asked me recently. If Narendra Modi becomes the Prime Minister, will he take a tough stand against China and Pakistan? This will not be possible. Even if a Modi-led government came to power, it will face constrains on two counts: a coalition-government that all opinion polls are predicting will not allow a free run to the Prime Minister. Importantly, the main opposition party will shout blue murder for any reasonable give-and-take that the government may negotiate for lasting peace.
The answer lies in changing the way India handles its national security. The latter must be above politics or bipartisanship. This is only possible if the government takes the main opposition party with it, especially in its dealing with China and Pakistan. These countries are unique because they have disputed borders with India, and the Indian Army has the onerous task of defending them against adversaries with nuclear weapons and distinctive fighting capabilities. The truism is that as long as these borders are not resolved, India will find it extremely difficult to realise its full potential economically and strategically.
I would suggest two things to strengthen national security against external threats. The National Security Advisor (NSA) should be a dynamic and an educated political leader rather than a bureaucrat. The latter brings the baggage and mindset of his service to the office which has an entirely different role to perform. And he has limited clout with the Prime Minister. For example, except for India’s first NSA, Brajesh Mishra, who had carte blanche backing of Prime Minister A B Vajpayee, all NSAs have simply been an extension of their previous jobs; confident of what they had been doing all their lives, and hesitant to delve into areas which would betray their ignorance. Such people can never think out-of-the-box.
The political NSA, with China and Pakistan as his priorities, should interact with the appointed interlocutor of the main opposition party on all bilateral developments regarding these nations. Nothing, including back-channel talks, should be a secret between the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha who should meet regularly with the NSA and the opposition’s interlocutor in attendance. The sense of this exercise will be that the two main political parties take ownership for India’s strategic and defence policies towards these nations through a free exchange of ideas. When interacting with the media, the government should make it known that national security is a combined effort and not a single party issue.
The NSA should also order a Strategic Defence Review (SDR) by select parliamentarians, outside-the-government experts and academicians to garner more options for the government-opposition consideration. On military threats, the SDR should have two simple questions to address: between China and Pakistan which is a bigger military threat, and how are these to be addressed? Without this clarity, modernisation of the armed forces will remain a disjointed and frustrating exercise; the government will spend aimlessly leaving the defence services asking for more. For instance, if it were decided that China is a bigger threat, two things would happen. The military pivot would shift towards the mountains, and the Indian Army would not have the need to sustain three strike corps against Pakistan.
The other suggestion concerns the defence minister. With the exception of George Fernandes, I cannot think of any defence minister in recent times who has taken his responsibilities seriously. The present minister, A.K. Antony, in my estimation, is amongst the worst that India has had; except for keeping his image clean, he did nothing to strengthen India’s defence. He simply allowed the bureaucrats to run his ministry with himself being guided by them.
Can anyone think of P. Chidambaram as the defence minister not asking the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) why they wanted him to change the operational directive which is issued once every five years? In beginning 2009, the defence minister’s classified operational directive, the highest political statement, was changed to read that the armed forces should prepare capabilities to fight a two-front war. A responsible defence minister would have asked the COSC to submit a combined services’ threat assessment based upon which the acquisition plan to build capabilities should have been initiated, and the new operational directive issued. If this had been done, the defence ministry would have saved the embarrassment of the finance ministry returning the army’s force accretion document, under which it sought a new mountain strike corps, to get a combined acquisitions plan to include the air force requirements. This situation came to pass because the civilian bureaucrats, as is their wont, were happy to play one service against the other. A responsible defence minister can easily resurrect the defunct COSC, making probably the clamour for a CDS or a permanent Chairman, COSC unnecessary.
A responsible defence minister after reviewing a COSC’s combined threat assessment would have worked to change the archaic government rules of business. It is laughable in a nation which has two major military-held lines on its disputed border, that the Civilian Defence Secretary and not the COSC is constitutionally responsible for the defence of India. Once the rules of business are changed by an act of Parliament, the three defence services would be brought into the ambit of governance. This would smoothen transition of defence personnel into the civilian defence ministry.