Monday, April 16, 2012

What did we gain by washing the Army's Dirty Linen in Public? We lost much

No democracy has washed its military's dirty linen as publicly as India has in recent weeks. Defence-related corruption was exposed in gory detail. This would have been a good thing if it had led, immediately and comprehensively, to an overhaul of the procurement and control systems. This has not happened, and will not happen, under the present gutless Government in Delhi.

So the linen remains dirty. This harms India in three important ways. First, the principle that aspects of national security must remain outside public debate now stands wrecked. In the nervous days of the Cuban missile crisis, American media respected President Kennedy's request not to report certain matters. In Britain there is a system of Defence Advisory notices that request media and others to exercise restraint on security matters.

In our case, nothing is sacred. TV anchors repetitiously shout the same secrets “exclusively”. A “senior member of the cabinet” himself leaks stories about coup-like troop movements. The Army Chief's confidential report to the Prime Minister about serious shortfalls in ammunition is in every paper and every channel. Our not-so-friendly neighbours should be happy to get all the information they need for free.

Second, India's military preparedness is reduced, the Army Chief's confidential report (that there is ammunition for only ten days) being more credible than the Defence Minister's pep talk (that we are prepared for any eventuality). The Chief is credible because India's weaknesses are of long standing, stemming basically from a lack of long-term planning. Advanced democracies plan on a minimum five-year basis, China on ten- and fifty- and hundred-year basis. Our range is one year because our budgeting tradition is on annual basis.

What planning we do is often hijacked by crooks who manipulate procurement processes through high-value corruption. A belatedly started Defence Procurement Organisation improved matters to some extent, but the crooks are too many and too powerful, and corruption in arms deals is a global science. Classified information was stolen from, of all places, the naval war room in Delhi in 2005. Serving and retired officers were found to be the culprits.

An Israeli company already under CBI investigation won a Rs 10,000-crore missile contract in 2009 by bribing an Indian middleman who, too, had fallen foul of the law and had fled India. Obviously, Indian blacklisting is a joke to operators functioning from the shadows. When bribes determine things, preparedness becomes secondary.

Third, the dirty linen has brought out perhaps the worst malaise affecting the defence structure – oneupmanship by the IAS over the military. All authority in the Defence Ministry is controlled by the civilian bureaucracy. Junior-level bureaucrats are in a position to issue instructions to army headquarters. Issues like pay and warrant of precedence are weighted against the military brass. Worst of all, top military professionals have no say in formulating security policy, a territory jealously preserved by the babus.

The IAS achieved its Big Brother status by telling the political leadership that high responsibility to the military would encourage it to seize power from civilian leadership. It is our misfortune that there hasn't been one Prime Minister or one Defence Minister so far to see through the selfish motivation behind this argument and give the military its due position in policy making. They do that in the US and the UK and we haven't yet heard of a General trying to seize power in Washington/London.

Think of the irony. We have a Prime Minister who is Mr Clean. We have a Defence Minister who is Mr Clean. We have an Army Chief who, despite the age controversy, is Mr Clean. This confluence of Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati should have given us a rare historical opportunity to cleanse the system and be truly prepared for any challenge. Instead, the weaknesses of the politicians and the cunningness of the bureaucrats have combined to rob the country of a singular opportunity. Unless we have Krishna on our side, we may be no match to the Kauravas who covet what we have.