Governance, pleaseConfused Defence Ministry: stumbling statecraft, security imperilled
These two in reality are the core issues: statecraft and national security; that is why they are central to our concerns, also in part explanatory of the shemozzle that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has made in the discharge of its responsibilities. It is self-evident that there has to be demonstrable good sense in managing public responsibility. Whereafter, axiomatic that a full understanding, due appreciation and timely responsiveness to the ingrained sensibilities of the armed forces must not only be observed, this should be demonstrably so. Then it is also clear that without an effective demonstration of statecraft in confronting the challenges to the state — challenges which are always an inevitable accompaniment of office — good governance will simply not be there. And if these attributes are absent in a government, any government, India’s security will be imperilled. This, too, is an axiom.
Let us briefly recapitulate the sequence of important events in this continuing saga of Chief of Army Staff (COAS) vs MoD as the wags put it. The first sorry episode is, of course, the Chief’s date of birth confusion. It requires no elaboration that no one can be born on two different dates. Without tediously repeating the entire course of events, I am persuaded to believe that this could have been handled with much greater administrative finesse. The Raksha Mantri ought to have, with due grace, accepted what was averred by the Chief. But had the Defence Minister come to the conclusion that the conduct of the COAS was unacceptable, he ought then to have said so and taken all such steps as his high office mandated.
Post the Supreme Court “judgment”, of sorts in reality, the management of the MoD became considerably more complex. It was then that the Prime Minister needed to step in; he is after all the Chairman of the CCS (Cabinet Committee on Security). For the country’s security, the PM, as the head of this apex body, bears full responsibility. The PM, alas, instead chose to make completely non-committal utterances of the most inane variety. The good Raksha Mantri in the meantime concentrated on remaining “good.”
Then, departing from all past traditions of the army, and sound good military order and form, the government, prematurely, and in haste, announced the name of the successor Chief. This was totally unnecessary, for in so doing the government has landed the Chief designate in avoidable and unneeded controversy. He thus starts his tenure with a cloud of controversy around him. Another demonstration of absence of sense resulting in again chipping at national security.
Then came the curious episode of B vehicles known as TATRA, of Czech origin. It would be too tedious to go into all the detailed explanations of how much, for example, a tarpaulin costs in the market and how much the MoD paid for it, whether directly or through BEML (Bharat Earth Movers Ltd). Here the plot really thickened, for the COAS, in an interview broadcast over TV and widely published by the print media, made known to all that he had been offered a “bribe” of some Rs 14-odd crore were he to approve acquisition of some 600 of these vehicles from BEML. Also, that in an outraged frame of mind, he had promptly gone and reported the matter to the Raksha Mantri. So far so good. But really not so good after all for subsequent revelations inform us that the RM, shocked and rendered speechless by all this, chose to sink his head in his hands, presumably in an act of hopeless despair, “good man” that he is.
Well, this was neither any effective demonstration of governance; of meeting the challenge of circumstances, of rising to the occasion, etc, or such other phrases of stock usage, nor of leadership. The RM says he told the COAS to take action or send a report or some such other vague generality. Not good enough, Mr Defence Minister; in reality, too flaccid, too feeble. What then does the COAS do? Well, he just goes back to his office or wherever and does nothing at all until he goes public on it some two months later. This is totally unacceptable conduct.
Let us, however, take it step by step. First, he (the COAS) could have taken no other action but to report to his superior, that is the Raksha Mantri, who it was that should have immediately initiated action. Why this sudden need for a written report, etc? The Chief is unquestionably subordinate to the RM, and as per Army Law, that is where he was obliged to report the matter. The RM’s explanations are ex-post-facto and unsustainable. Is it the RM’s suggestion that reversing responsibilities, he wanted the Chief to give instructions? These failures of sense, sensibility and statecraft begin to further burden our national security.
I do wish to add two thoughts here which my friend and colleague Arun Singh, with whom I have had the great honour, pleasure and privilege of working in the Ministry of Defence, has shared.
In a note, amongst other aspects, he has held: “If the COAS advised inaction, then why did he go to the RM in the first place? Was it, simply, as the navy puts it ‘to clear his yardarm’ and, if so, why didn’t RM disallow such a ‘clearance’ in a matter like this?”
Then a rap on the COAS’ knuckles. “If COAS knew the vehicles were either substandard or over-priced, relative to his General Staff Requirement (the operational guiding principles for all procurements), why did he not instruct his subordinates in Army HQ to reject the supply out of hand? He could not have been faulted for doing so, irrespective of any pressures that may or could have been brought to bear on him from the Department of Defence or the Department of Defence Production, if he was sure of his facts”.
Now consider for a moment the report in Dainik Bhaskar of March 28. It is an alarming news item reproducing the essential contents of purportedly a “Top Secret” letter written by the Chief (some say on March 12) to the PM. This is extremely worrisome and on various counts. The first, of course, is whether there does exist such a letter? Presumably, it does for it has not yet been denied. Then are its contents correct? The Raksha Mantri’s initial responses in Rajya Sabha do not refute the report. This complicates the issue (or issues) immeasurably. Are the contents correct is the very first question, for it is central to national security.
Then, secondly, how has a top secret communication between the Chief and the PM become public? This is a valid query and we do have a right to know. Before we reflect further on the conduct of the COAS, a word, and very briefly on this entire laggard process of our weapons’ procurement procedures and systems. The COAS has rather despairingly commented recently that “the procurement game is a version of snakes and ladders where there is no ladder but only snakes, and if the snakes bite you somewhere, the whole thing comes back to zero.” A stray example would be the acquisition of 75 much-needed Pilatus PC-7 Mk II trainer aircraft, announced last year, currently delayed like so many other procurements before it. Why? Over allegations of irregularities in the bidding process. Worryingly, questions have also now been asked about the Rafale procurement.
We need also to realistically assess, rather re-evaluate our so-termed “indigenous defence industry.” Here, our dreams do not match our achievements, but this is presently not central to our inquiry.
Before I go back to the COAS, a disagreement with and an appeal to the Raksha Mantri. First, you do not act because, you said “you had no report.” Then even though you have no report other than that of visual or print media, you self-satisfiedly announce that even without a report you have ordered a “comprehensive CBI inquiry”.
Mr Raksha Mantri, may I point out, most respectfully, that this is such an egregiously faulty step as to almost be beyond criticism? This grossly compounds earlier mistakes and causes further damage to the principal institutions of the Defence Ministry. Do investigate the whole bribe offer episode, certainly, but please not through the police elements of the CBI. Have you no confidence in your own military courts of inquiry; or examinations by peers of all matters military? Why cause injury and then sprinkle the salt of insult on it? In this, lies a gross failure of appreciating the sensibilities of the armed forces.
Now some words of advice to the COAS, from someone who is almost totally a product, from childhood to now of the army, and who was, besides, commissioned years earlier. The Chiefs of the three services are, of course, individuals, holding their high office for fixed terms, subject to the usual conditions. So have you held office notwithstanding all those age-related conundrums. The office of COAS, Air staff or Naval Staff is greater than the individual occupying it. Try and not overlook this crucial aspect.
Then let me take you to the Drill Square of the IMA, and the haloed Chetwode Hall, through the portals of which thousands of young gentlemen cadets slow march into commissioned service of the Republic. Remember that unerasable inscription of Field Marshal Chetwode’s advice to all those that go through that gateway? “The Honour, Safety, Security of your country comes first always and every time” and so on, in that order of priority ‘of the men that you command’, and ‘your own last’ always and every time.” Apply this simple, (or not so simple) yardstick, now as your career in the army draws to its close: “Has your conduct of the last several months been in harmony with that hoary injunction, or even with the great and distinguished service that you have yourself rendered to the country for all these years?”
With the Hon’ble PM and the Hon’ble RM, both very good men, I share Lord Halifax’s sneeringly patrician remark: “State craft is a cruel business, good nature is a bungler at it”.
Believe me, my good sirs, the nation is weary of your “good nature,” we crave for “good governance.” Can you now, please, for a change do just that?The writer is a former Union minister of defence, finance and external affairs, firstname.lastname@example.org
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