Needed : A full time Defense Minister

Harsha Kakar
The Indian system of governance, in the manner it has evolved post-independence, is unique, especially as it concerns the functioning of the military. Fear and lack of trust on the military, compelled the Government to relegate it to the level of attached offices, the only country to do so. It was post Kargil and the Kargil committee report, which blasted the Government on this issue, that it relented and made a change, by announcing an integration of the service HQs with the Ministry of Defence (MoD), however in reality there is neither an integration, nor is it still considered as part of the Government. The three arms of the military have no connection, involvement nor interaction with any other ministry in the Government. It is represented by the MoD, which has no uniformed representative as part of it, hence remains mostly ignorant on matters military. They cannot even be considered paper tigers for neither are they tigers, nor do they effectively push paper, but act as stumbling blocks in decision making.
Crises management in the country, especially in case of a natural calamity, insurgent strike on central police forces(Sukhma being an example) or a terror strike on the local population is managed by the concerned ministry (generally home), without involving other stakeholders. This becomes a single ministry approach and is archaic, whereas the rest of the world has moved to a ‘whole of Government’ approach,which involves immediately constituting a committee comprising of all who could be in anyway involved in resolving the crisis. Even if the military is invited, it is the MoD representative who attends andlacks even the basic knowledge of military capability, strategy and tactics. The military continues to remain out of the loop of Government functioning.
In India,the military never responds to criticism, nor defends its actions in the public domain, irrespective of provocation, the recent jeep tying incident and the Poonch encounter, where two soldiers were beheaded are recent examples, unlike its Pak counterpart. Recently the head of the Pakistan Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) questioned the decision and announcement of the Prime Minister’s office on the Dawn newspaper leak episode in open media, sparking fears within the Government, compelling the PM to call a cabinet meeting to diffuse the situation. The military in India rarely conducts press conferences, letting the Defence Minister do the talking and answering queries. The announcement of the surgical strike was done by the Director General Military Operations (DGMO) with no fanfare or question-answer session. It was just a matter of fact, statement made.
The release of the joint military doctrine should have logically been done by the Defence Minister, since it concerns all three services, but the possibility of non-availability of an acting defence minister compelled the chiefs to release the same. Further, though the pay commission may have been announced, there would still be anomalies, which would need to be handled.The services would study the announcement, note pending queries and seek for an early resolution. It would need a voice in the Government, none better than the Defence Minister. To understand the shortcomings and its impact takes time, which would never be available with a part time minister, holding a variety of important portfolios. He would never have time for interacting with troops on the ground to understand their side of the story, hence remains cut off from reality.
The three services remain independent, with no single entity at the helm, such as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), hence depend on the Defence Minister to handle major issues. Procurement is a contentious issue as each service seeks to develop its own capabilities within the limited budget. It is the defence minister who does the balancing act after interacting with the service chiefs. Since the move of Manohar Parrikar, processing of procurements has also moved at a slower pace.
The Government’s decision to appoint a CDS has been made on numerous occasions, but a formal announcement is still awaited. To comprehend issues on the subject, for a non-military politician is not easy, considering the fear existing within the polity of a powerful appointment. Manohar Parrikar took time, but understood reasons for the appointment. The PM was also convinced, however, with a change at the helm, everything is back to square one.
The present period is strategicallyactive, with a boiling Kashmir, firing along the Line of Control (LoC), Chinese assertiveness and major procurements in the pipeline. This is the period when the nation requires a full time defence minister, approachable to the chiefs, alienable to their needs and answering multitude of issues arising from the recent situation. It is through him that the army would project its plans and future course of action. It is through him that the army would suggest its Kashmir policy for acceptance by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. This gap was evident, when a part time Defence Minister made a general statement with the usual cry of vengeance and support, post the recent Poonch incident, however could not handle questions on the subject.
Hence, the only connect between the three arms of the military, the government, media and the public is the defence minister. He has always remained as the front face of the military in the public eye, answering questions and conveying the military mind and thought. A permanent incumbent, aware and well informed is able to handle queries on behalf of the military. Lack of a permanent incumbent adversely impacts day to day functioning and decision making at the ministry level. A part timer, like the present, having to scuttle between offices and juggle between appointments would naturally prefer to devote more time and attention to his permanent assignment of finance, rather than defence. Even when dealing with defence related issues, his interactions would be confined to the defence secretary, rather than service chiefs. In the ultimate analysis it is the nation which loses.
Military issues presently are at the forefront of national policy, especially in Kashmir, and with an unintegrated MoD and services kept at arms-length, the non-availability of a permanent incumbent is being felt.  It is time that the Government does not wait for the next cabinet reshuffle but considers appointing a Defence Minister to recreate the link between the military, Government, public and the media.
(The author is a retired Major    General of the Indian Army)


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