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Friday, Aug 23, 2019

Defence minister Rajnath Singh may have to adopt balanced approach

These two episodes reflect, partly, the opportunities and challenges that the defence ministry will face.

india Updated: Jun 30, 2019 08:17 IST
Sudhi Ranjan Sen
Sudhi Ranjan Sen
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Singh is an experienced and old-school politician. In his previous avatar as Union home minister, he ensured the Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMF) had all they needed in terms of welfare measures, infrastructure and equipment.
Singh is an experienced and old-school politician. In his previous avatar as Union home minister, he ensured the Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMF) had all they needed in terms of welfare measures, infrastructure and equipment.(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)
         

A few days after Rajnath Singh took over as defence minister, the government reversed its earlier order of suspending rations to officers in peace stations. Civil-military relations, which had been fraying for a raft of reasons, improved with the underlying message that the government cared.

“It is our major focus and concern,” said a close aide of Rajnath Singh on condition of anonymity.

But soon, another order to tax pension, which comes with disability benefits if the soldier has not been invalidated, generated a challenge for him. Criticism mounted, because irrespective of whether a solider has been invalidated or served his full term, pensions with disability benefits have not been taxed since 1922.

These two episodes reflect, partly, the opportunities and challenges that the defence ministry will face.

Singh is an experienced and old-school politician. In his previous avatar as Union home minister, he ensured the Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMF) had all they needed in terms of welfare measures, infrastructure and equipment. His interventions eased the life of an ordinary CPMF soldier. In the process, he endeared himself to them.

The first four weeks in his new role show that Singh is likely to continue down the same road. His maiden visit as defence minister was to Siachen – the highest battlefield in the world. “The minister has taken a keen interest in the welfare of troops, attending long briefings to understand the nuts and bolts,” said a senior ministry official who did not want to be named.

But this is only one part of his role.

India’s defence has been crying for modernisation, with longstanding complaints about shrinking budgets and slow acquisition process. Despite his best intentions, Singh may not be able to do much when it comes to modernisation.

As much as 31 per cent of India’s total capital expenditure is allocated to defence. The scope of it going up any further is bleak. He will have to work out a fine balance between the contending designs of the three forces – Indian Army, Navy and Air Force. With rising trade-flows, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is also becoming increasingly militarised; at any point in time, there are over 100 warships, an unknown number of submarines of different countries in the IOR. The Navy needs more muscle.

At the same time, the Indian Air Force (IAF) - which is down to 30 fighter squadrons as against the required 42- has shown that it can deliver quick retribution with minimal cost. Similarly, the Indian Army needs new weapon systems.

The choice before the minister, therefore, may be difficult. Does he opt for more fighters for the IAF, or Multi-Role Helicopters – popularly called flying frigates because they are tasked with anti-submarine warfare, surface anti-ship attacks, early warning and electronic warfare – of which the Navy has none? Or does he decide to replace the decades-old air defence system of the Indian Army?

On the revenue side, dealing with rising pension costs will be a tough act for Singh. “Modernisation of the defence forces is clearly the priority, increase in funding combined with more efficient use of resources appears to be the focus,” said a second defence ministry official who did not want to be named since he was not authorised to speak to the media.

India continues to be the biggest importer of weapon systems and equipment, a point Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to in his speech in Parliament last week. Getting “Make in India” for defence manufacturing moving is another area of concern for the minister.

“It is a medium to long term goal, the ecosystem will have to grow, hurdles removed and ensure there is a right kind of environment for foreign equipment manufacturers to feel comfortable to share technology with Indian companies,” a third senior ministry official who did not want to be named said.

Defence diplomacy will be another area that will need Singh’s able handling. In part, he will be the face of the shift in policy or ambiguity that India adopts vis-a-vis Russia and the United States (US) in the days to come.

In sum, from modernisation to balancing the needs of the forces, from welfare of soldiers to dealing with a fluid global international climate, from giving a push to domestic defence manufacturing to finding resources, Singh will have his hands full. But as one of the seniormost ministers in government, he has the political weight to push through tough decisions.

First Published: Jun 30, 2019 05:46 IST

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