Special Feature: Narendra Modi and Politics of National Defence


Executive Summary

At a time when irregularities in defence procurement deals have hit headlines in the media and thereby raised issues of probity and transparency in recent times, one can not help but wonder as to how the political parties and their leaders look at larger issues of probity in and concepts of national defence and security. While, not much emphases has come from senior political leaders, whose primary source of dissemination of ideas on national security remains in manifestoes, it is refreshing to see that BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi raising some of the critical aspects of national defence and security, which otherwise deserve national attention. It is argued that Modi’s ideas on national defence and security are contextually embedded in the ‘will’ of the state at the apex and a set of ‘practical options’ at the federal constituent levels. Such ideas, it is argued further, need further deliberations.


Politics of National Security

National defence issues generally do not find much expression during election times in India, except for issues like defeat in a war (1962) or a major defence scam (for example, Bofors in late 1980s), that have demonstrated some capacities to swing electoral verdicts. A preliminary assumption would suggest that national defence and security issues may be of less importance in electoral politics than one would have assumed to the contrary, despite public outrage. However, a closer look into the forthcoming national elections in 2014, which is less than a month away from now on, suggests that a few defence and security issues has already been raised and debated widely in public and it may not surprise us if serious charges of corruption in defence deals contribute to the already pessimistic national political outlook.


Although long-term and large defence procurements transcend decisions beyond a particular government in power, many of the scams that have surfaced in recent times owe their processes to the current government’s long tenure. Interestingly, the person at the helm of national defence affairs, A K Antony, also happens to be the longest serving defence minister in the country. Despite his otherwise saintly stature, consider the scams that have surfaced in his tenure: Ordnance Factory Board scam, Tatra-BEML military vehicle scam, VVIP chopper scam and of late the Rolls-Royce-HAL scam, to name a few. Some defence tenders like in artillery have been cancelled and re-tendered time and again. The MoD and Central Vigilance Commission have received more than 120 complaints of irregularities in defence deals in the last three years alone, while vigilance department of the MoD as well as referred cases to CBI by the MoD number more than thirty. More than half a dozen prime defence contractors, including those from South Africa, Israel, Singapore, have been banned along with a few Indian compnaies, while the MoD may even blacklist a few more, if charges against them are proved. The recent VVIP chopper scam even forced the Defence Minister to assure the Parliament of a suo moto statement, at the least, which may not happen now as the government has already been in a lame duck mode due to forthcoming elections. If these are not enough, a series of unfortunate accidents in Indian Navy’s prime assets like submarines and destroyers in the past few months and resignation of Admiral D K Joshi have led to serious questions being raised on national defence and security issues.


Such is the nature of Indian politics that only wrong sides of security issues like scams or defeats get much public attention for obvious reasons where opposition parties try to corner the ruling parties, and where the latter generally tends to get defensive. What is, however, important to note is that such scams, exact details of which are often times shrouded in mystery because of the very nature of systemic complexities in national defence affairs, do get public attention for a few days, after which they fade into distant memory, while usually long investigative process does its job.


It is a pity that when defence scams dominate deliberations for a relatively shorter period, larger issues of national security like India’s bilateral and multilateral security engagements, dynamics of national power, self-reliance in national defence technologies and industrial power or resources allocations for national security are missing from national debates for decades, except ritualistic reports emanating from the Standing Committee on Defence and sporadic analyses in the media.


It is unfortunate as well as worrisome for two primary reasons. First, a tendency to treat national security matters above national scrutiny and discourage debate outside the confines of the government may lead the country to perpetuate the concept of ‘security state’ where interest groups within the state practically devise and implement national security policies. Second, by not paying adequate attention or working in ‘ad-hoc’ manner on critical national security policy issues are likely to do more harm than good to the country.


Despite efforts by the current government to bring in much desired reforms in defence sector and more specifically attempting to reverse India’s arms import dependency syndrome or boosting self-reliance in defence, its performance has been rather dismal. The Defence Minister’s recent braggart assertion (claimed during a press conference at Def Expo on 6 February 2014) that India’s import dependency ratio of 70:30 has improved to 60:40 is definitely unpalatable unless he proves his claims with official data, while the MoD’s nine revised attempts thus far to make the defence procurement procedure (DPP) more transparent and responsive has actually made the process further complicated with additions of more multi-disciplinary committees at various stages. The Indian private companies, who were shown a big pie in the USD 150 plus defence procurement budget for the next decade, are much disappointed today, while instances and allegations of corruption have delayed most procurement decisions. These are just a few examples that indicate the existing state of national defence affairs, which need serious introspections.


Politics of Manifestoes

How do political parties articulate their positions on such national defence and security issues? These positions actually boil down to election manifestoes, written mostly by retired bureaucrats (civil or military) owing allegiance to different political parties, who head relevant cells in those parties. Most of tent, these It is thus no surprise to find that jargons like ‘self-reliance’, ‘strong state’, ‘strategic autonomy’ etc. find mention in most of the manifestoes and speeches of political leaders. Languages of such manifestoes may differ, but the central essence of larger ideas related to national defence and security denote same meanings, usually culminating in propagating such jargons without explaining as to how such ideas would be pursued. Declaration of intent without a roadmap drawn invariably leads to a directionless policy. Indian national defence and security typify this scenario in many ways.


Barring Lal Bahadur Shastri’s “jai jawan, jai kishan” and Atal Behari Vajpayee’s addendum to Shastri’s slogan – “jai vigyaan”, most of the statements of national leaders in current times seem rhetorical and hence seldom inspiring. Take for example the issue of corruption in defence deals or the subject of self-reliance in defence products and technologies. Most of the Indian analysts as well as top leadership, including the current defence minister, emphasize the need for probity and accountability in defence procurement procedure or talk about enhancement of role of private sector in defence production. However, such assertions or pronouncements are seldom inspiring these days. The gap between braggart public pronouncement by politicians, bureaucrats and military leaders and admission of helplessness or bitter criticism of the systemic flaws by the same people is growing, leading to a situation where pessimism has long overshadowed cautious optimism, which prevailed during early years of reforms in Indian defence sector.


It is in this context that Narendra Modi’s views on various aspects of national security merit attention. Otherwise known to use jargons or flowery words to appeal to the masses, Modi has avoided such tactics on defence and security issues. Not falling into rhetoric or esoteric, he has over a period of time built his arguments on two larger points: strengthening ‘will’ of the state to achieve larger goals of national security, and pursuing a ‘state-led and centre-directed’ approach to boost self-reliance in defence.


Proactive Approaches to National Defence and Security

Consider the following. First, in January 2013, at an international conference on ‘defence offsets’ as part of the 6th Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors’ Summit (VGGIS), Modi called for framing a holistic policy to make India self-reliant in defence production for the security forces alongside training skilled human resources. He also said that apart for meeting her own defence needs, India is capable of fulfilling the defence needs of smaller and developing nations too. It is interesting to note that while as many as 123 topics were deliberated at VGGIS in 2013, a full day’s brain storming session was organized to deliberate issues related to country’s defence needs. One may smell symbolism in such gigantic shows, but contents like ‘defence offsets’ are serious subjects.


Second, a special economic zone promoted by Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC), devoted exclusively to manufacture of niche electronic products, had even attracted global arms majors like Lockheed Martin for material and scientific knowledge investment some time back (although the proposal has not seen the light of the day, thanks to the inaction on the part of the central government). Apart from Indian companies investing in many parts of Gujarat, Modi had specifically asked entrepreneurs with engineering background to set up their defence equipment units in Gujarat. He had argued in VGGIS that the state had a large manufacturing base of small and medium scale units, which could be gainfully deployed in defence production in ‘cluster form’ as well. His emphasis on ‘cluster forms’ within the larger defence industrial base is an idea whose time has indeed come. Such a strategy could promote ‘pockets of excellence’ in Indian defence scientific and industrial base (DTIB).


Third, in his recent address to the NASSCOM, Modi said: “we have to emphasize indigenous electronics manufacturing in strategic sectors like defence”. Indian military assets, both existing and future procurement, contain sizeable import components in electronics and information technology domains, which is a very serious problem”. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that imported electronic components make systems more vulnerable from within than without. Modi’s stress on indigenous hardware and component manufacturing for military sectors shows his seriousness in addressing select critical issues of national security.


Fourth, on ‘one rank, one pension’ for 24 lakhs ex-servicemen in the interim budget, it was Modi, who had raised the issue in one of his public meetings in Haryana months back, much before Rahul Gandhi met former soldiers and literally forced the government to accept the demand. Interestingly, Modi was the first to endorse the decision as well by congratulate the government, when the latter announced it. Raising issues like neglected human resources of armed forces, he may have succeeded in scoring a point over others.


Last but not the least, much before Modi was declared as the PM candidate, in a meeting in Mumbai addressed to business tycoons in March 2012, he had said: “Gujarat is taking initiatives to make India self-reliant in the sector of defence by bringing out a new policy - for those interested in this field; we will make Gujarat a heavenly place for them”. What is important to note here is that Modi is not relying on jargons for political impact, but hinting at a prudent policy option of state-led defence industrial strategies (like the ones already initiated by states like Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh) to achieve self-reliance in defence.


Trying hard not to fall into the ‘jargon trap’, Modi seems to have mastered the art of placing his views on certain national security issues, which not only conform to his larger idea of India as a ‘strong state’ with ‘strong will’ but more importantly suggesting practical ways to achieve key national security objectives. Politics aside, his ideas certainly deserve a serious look in.

Author Note
The author is the Vice President, Society for the study of Peace and Conflict, New Delhi. He also heads Indicia Research Advisory, a New Delhi based defence research firm.