Indian Army continues to battle an indecisive government

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Last year started on a controversial note when General Bipin Rawat assumed command of the Indian Army, superseding two army commanders senior to him. Considerable discussion followed as, with some exceptions, the government has usually stayed on the straight and narrow path of seniority. While the government tried to give many excuses, there was considerable skepticism in military circles as well as the media.

As Army Day (the day an Indian general took command of independent India’s army) rolled by on January 15, 2017, the prime minister graciously tweeted: “We remember with great pride all the sacrifices made by our army. They put their lives at risk so that 125 crore [1.25 billion] Indians live peacefully.”

However, a couple of months later, his government swooped down on a peaceful gathering of protesting military veterans demanding removal of anomalies in the “One Rank, One Pension” (OROP) scheme – a long-standing demand that all military retirees of the same rank get the same pension, irrespective of their retirement dates. So, was it a genuine shabash (congratulations) or another jumla (fake promise)?

Rotating defense ministers

The present government seems to like juggling defense ministers. In three years India has had four, including one incumbent twice, but in name only, as his first charge was the Ministry of Finance. Manohar Parrikar, after taking over on November 9, 2014, remained in office for just about two years before returning to his home state. Arun Jaitley became a caretaker defense minister once again for about six months, thus wasting a year for such an important ministry.

Parrikar, despite being a lightweight in the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), tried his best to bring about urgently needed changes. But even he couldn’t rein in the well-entrenched bureaucracy. He failed to satisfy either the military veterans or the serving personnel as modernization plans were kept pending. He could not resolve anomalies in pay and allowances, either.

He fell into the bureaucratic trap of setting up a host of committees, whose recommendations are languishing. These include the Justice Reddy Committee for OROP anomalies, the Promotion Policy Committee and many others. Even the high-powered Shekatkar Committee’s recommendations have been only partially accepted, while the real hard-nosed ones have been quietly buried.

The current military leadership also seemed to be taking knee-jerk reactions in response to a hyperactive discourse on social media. To obviate grievances being aired by soldiers on social media, the army chief instructed all formations to have a grievance box. This move drew adverse reactions, as the army has always had a highly elaborate and fair system of dealing with grievances.

The end of a severe winter coincided with an upsurge in violence in the Kashmir Valley. The Jammu and Kashmir state government was visibly helpless and was more concerned with the upcoming elections in Srinagar and Anantnag. The police and Central Armed Police Forces had constraints and, therefore, failed to take strong action. It was left to the army to contain the local violence as well as neutralize insurgents.

It was also another wasted year for joint endeavors by the three services, despite the army pushing for it. The air force continues to be highly obdurate, without any cogent reasons; the bureaucracy is loath to give up its current role of being the virtual joint headquarters; and the political leadership is blasé, as it has only elections and vote banks on its mind. Consequently, a Chief of Defense Staff and joint structures continue to be a major weakness at all levels.

What is worrying is that instead of a reduction of operational tasks, the army keeps getting deeper into the morass of counterinsurgency operations as well as border defense at the same time. Although Indian Army soldiers are well trained, well led, and physically and mentally tough, these repetitive tasks take their toll and affect morale adversely.

The political leadership seems to have no plans to change this situation by other means, although the strength of all types of police forces, administrators, and subordinate staff keeps increasing, as do their pay and allowances, while the army plods on with antiquated equipment, reduced emoluments and ever-increasing tasks.

Lack of modernization

Despite its high numerical strength, the Indian Army continues to be a hollow army. Consequently, its ability to undertake various types of military operations on the modern battlefield stands greatly reduced.

There are three major reasons for this state of affairs.

The first is the abysmally low defense budget, which has been dwindling every year and now stands at just 1.5% of gross domestic product. The second is complicated procurement procedures. Despite eight Defense Procurement Plans having been issued in nine years, there is no change in the situation.

The third reason is that while the prime minister’s “Make in India” policy resonates in discussions, media reports, committees, election speeches and the like, precious little action is visible on ground. The government manufacturers carry on in their lethargic ways and the Defense Research and Development Organization has produced little, despite huge time delays and cost overruns.

The coming of the new defense minister, the fourth in three years, has also been marked by controversy. The army was ordered to clear garbage left by tourists in the mountains. While the army hierarchy meekly accepted it, there was a furor among the veterans. Why are local civil-government institutions and officials shirking their responsibilities?

A month or so later, the defense minister again tasked the army to construct four footbridges across local train lines in Mumbai. It was a political move to bail out both the railways and the BJP-led government in Maharashtra, which were twiddling their thumbs after an accident on a pedestrian bridge.

It is a mystery why the army accepted this task. The bottom line is that no real change has taken place in the Indian Army in 2017.

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