The provision of weapons for India’s military has traditionally been pulled in three different directions. One is that arms purchases should not become the source of a corruption scandal. The other is that India should build more of its weapons at home. The third is of having a military equipped with the right sort of weapons. In theory, the latter should be the priority but with successive governments it has often been an overthought. Haunted by the shadow of the Bofors scandal, the past Congress-led government was obsessed with avoiding corruption scandals, even to the detriment of indigenisation and defence preparedness. The present BJP-led NDA government is more focused on leveraging India’s defence purchases to help kick-start its ambitious plans for the country’s manufacturing sector. If done without proper thought, that need not be a positive for the country’s defence preparedness.
The new defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, has begun on the right rhetorical note. His Congress predecessor solved the issue of defence corruption by simply putting all purchases in cold storage. India lives in a tough neighbourhood and can ill-afford a military deficient in weapons. The intentions to undo unrealistic decisions like blacklisting arms firms and keeping out defence middlemen are welcome. This will help unblock the purchase procedure at one level. The more difficult reforms Mr Parrikar needs to address will be reforming India’s present offsets policy in a manner that takes into account the weakness of indigenous defence technology and production capacity. A longer term reform will revolve around breaking the present defence production monopoly of the state-owned enterprises and bringing a wary Indian private sector into the loop. And all of this needs to be done in a manner that does not leave India’s defences even worse off than they already are.
Mr Parrikar hopefully understands that all this, most notably indigenisation, will take patience. Replacing an incompetent Indian defence public sector with a rent-seeking Indian private sector is a danger. Offsets will make available billions in contracts. Using them to slowly help incubate the basic skills, core technologies and subcontractor clusters that a genuine indigenous defence capability would require both knowledge and patience, and an ability to avoid falling into the closed mindset that exists among most of the defence ministry’s bureaucrats. India should expect to continue to import arms for years to come. Hopefully each round of imports will see more and more Indian firms providing components, writing software and absorbing new technologies. Indigenisation should not be used, as anti-corruption was before it, as an excuse to provide substandard equipment to the country’s military. It is a life and death issue for the men and women in uniform as well as the country as a whole.