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Budget let down further strains army-government relations
Through in its budget presented on February 1 the government hiked the defence allocation by just short of eight per cent over last year. This pegged at a mere 1.58 per cent of the gross domestic product, making it the least allocation by this yardstick since the 1962 War. The push back from the military on the straitened defence budget was not long in coming.
The Army’s candid deposing in front of the parliamentary standing committee on defence came to light with the release on March 13 of the committee’s forty-first report on ‘Demand for Grants 2018-19’. The report carried the Army vice chief’s lament that this was far short of its expectations on several counts, including rendering it unable to cover ongoing modernization projects, leave alone cater for the Army’s pet project of creating an ability to fight a ‘two front’ war.
The standing committee’s report has not drawn attention over the recent past. Though the defence budget has been declining in relation to the GDP over the past four years, there was little appetite in the strategic community to critique this. This was in contrast to the vociferous criticism of the government in the UPA period that usually followed these annual, routine reports.
The reports invariably carried a stricture on the government to be more attentive to matters of defence, alighted upon by the strategic community less as a stick to beat the comatose Manmohan government but more to set the stage for a ushering in a different ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which promised to be strong on defence. The declining defence budget escaped being targeted thus far since the government created an illusion of a strong defence by taking a proactive stance on both borders, activating the Line of Control (LC), while staring down the Chinese along the Line of Actual Control (LOAC).
A key indicator for the operation of a national security doctrine is the defence budget. The relatively measly defence budget thus seemingly contradicted expectations of a government wishing to be seen as strong on defence. Yet, the usual critique was somewhat absent because the strategic community – honourable exceptions apart - did not wish to berate those it had championed.
Even the standing committee’s report has not attracted the critical commentary the UPA was subject to. The strategic community appears to be taken in by the government’s explanation that it is taking out a defence investment and manufacturing policy that would compensate over the long term for any shortfall.
More plausibly, the fall in allocations to levels that could raise eyebrows owed to the budget being seen as more of an election budget, possibly the last one prior to elections either later this year or early next year. With monies for schemes such as the national health insurance scheme to cover some 10 crore vulnerable families needed, the amount was presumably found by axing the defence budget. Having created an image of being mindful of defence, the government perhaps thinks that it could trade this for shoring its image in the electorally more consequential social and welfare sectors, especially since its development promise has faded considerably.
Equally, the government in election year is unwilling to chance a crisis on either border. The budget is a means to signal potential adversaries of intentions. The government is perhaps unwilling to set off a self-fulfilling prophecy, with heightened allocations posing a security dilemma for adversaries, thereby bringing about a scenario better avoided. At least in election year, the government would not want threat perceptions to spike, since the outcome of aggravation is both out of one’s sole control and can never be guaranteed.
A Doklam replay that goes awry this year could prove fatal for the government’s longevity. It would not want to put its electoral cards in the Army’s basket, howsoever alert and professional. The government would not want India’s claims of defence preparedness – such as finance minister’s budget speech boasts on border infrastructure improvement - tested prematurely, and certainly not in election year.
However, continuation of artillery duels on the Line of Control (LC) can be indulged. The electoral dividends of a continuing low intensity conflict along the LC can be had without the costs of conventional show down. The ruling party’s need for polarisation for elections does not require a costly war.
Though the Army trotted out the threat of the worst-case scenario of a two front war in its reservations expressed to the standing committee, the government has other instruments of state to ensure that the worst-case is avoided. In relation to Pakistan, the intelligence game can continue under tutelage of the national security advisor, who while lining up for the post had famously warned Pakistan that it stood to lose Baluchistan. As regards China, India now has as its new foreign secretary the diplomat credited with defusing the prolonged crisis at Doklam.
Finally, the government perhaps thought that it could get away, leaving perception management surrounding the exercise to the Army chief, by now known for his proximity to the ruling party line. There was no pushback by the Army chief over being shortchanged by the government in the budget. Instead, his first remarks since budget day came a month later, on the defence expenditures being a sine qua non for economic growth. These were characterized in the media as a defence of the budget allocation. However, his deputy made amends in speaking of the army’s disappointment.
Of late there appears to be dissension in the brass. At a university seminar in Chandigarh late last month, the western Army commander thought that to fight a two-front war was not ‘smart’. His training command counterpart went further, observing that brinkmanship is no substitute for statesmanship that alone can bring about de-escalation along the LC. Both, speaking in wake of the budget downsizing, were no doubt cognizant of its implications. The vice chief has joined them in calling out the government’s playing fast and loose with defence matters.
Potentially this a juncture of unravalling of the Army’s illusion of a government keen on shoring defence, that accounted in part for the Army’s seemingly unnecessary cozying up to the ruling party over the past few years. As momentum built up to the Modi wave prior to last national elections, the military was one of the first converts, best illustrated by its former chief VK Singh escorting PM Modi to the podium at a veteran’s rally at Rewari.
Modi-military equations have since been patchy, peppered with controversies over the seventh pay commission, the one-rank-one-pension, the status-equivalence issue with bureaucrats, fishy arms deals such as the turn-round on Rafale, arrest of a former service chief, dithering over the chief of defence staff etc. Not to forget, the claim by the head of the right wing political formation supportive of the ruling party that his outfit – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh - can outdo the Army in mobilization. What the Army does in three weeks, it can do in three days.
The chequered relations have now been capped by a budget let down. Discernible is an unraveling of the Army’s illusion that a conservative-realist government that best understood it and national security is at the helm. Instead, the fallout of the reduced budget could be in the Army beginning to see a self-interested ideological formation furthering its own electoral interest while preying on the Army’s need for self-esteem.