Defence Planning Committee: Is too much being attempted too late?
To be relevant, DPC will have to address complex national security issues that have bedevilled the Indian policy apparatus for yearsUpdated: Apr 19, 2018, 19:55 IST
Notwithstanding the cynical quip about South Block and governance, summarised as ‘when in doubt and resolve is to be conveyed, create a committee’ — the formation of a new NSA (national security adviser )-led Defence Planning Committee (DPC) that the Modi government announced on Wednesday is to be cautiously welcomed, for it reflects the political priority being accorded to national security.
India’s comprehensive military security and the higher defence structures that manage this critical national capability have many inadequacies and are in need of radical institutional overhaul and re-wiring. This issue has been flagged many times with varying intensity over the last 20 years and the Kargil report of 2000 initiated by the Vajpayee-led government had made some sterling recommendations.
However, it is a sad reality that over the last 18 years, from NDA I (1999-2004) through UPA I and II ( 2004 – 14 ) to NDA II (2014 – 19), this issue has been left in a state of suspension and South Block has been metaphorically trying to cross the chasm in two leaps.
Thus, this initiative, coming soon after the DefExpo in Chennai, is to be welcomed, but it may be a case of too much being attempted too late. The reason for this caution is that this is the last year of the NDA government and the tasking of the DPC is both comprehensive and hence commendable —but also ambitious and hence the concern about the time factor.
The notification regarding the tasking of DPC states that it will prepare draft reports on “national security strategy, international defence engagement strategy, roadmap to build a defence manufacturing ecosystem, strategy to boost defence exports and priority capability development plans” that will then be submitted to the defence minister. These four bullets may appear innocuous but each of them would entail considerable multi-ministry effort and harmonising existing governance stove-pipes that are tenaciously insular and prickly.
The first meeting of DPC is expected to be held on April 21 and this is perhaps indicative of the priority and urgency with which this task is being approached. The membership of DPC is drawn in the main from the ministry of defence (MoD) — the three chiefs and the defence secretary, and will be complemented by the foreign secretary and the expenditure secretary. In essence this will be a high-powered committee led by PMO with inputs from the defence, external and finance ministries. This is representative of the CCS composition (Cabinet Committee on Security) without the home ministry.
The fact that Modi was encouraged to set up this DPC may be interpreted as a case of the existing structures within MoD, chiefs of staff committee and PMO not being able to provide the inputs that are now being sought.
But it cannot escape notice and comment that this initiative, welcome as it is, is coming about in the last year of the Modi government when he and his team will be in election mode in the run up to the 2019 polls. It would appear that the campaign has already begun and the Modi press interaction in London is a case in point.
The areas to be covered are vast and encompass a wide spectrum: policy and strategy; planning and military capability development; defence diplomacy; and defence manufacturing.
Some ontological issues that have remained untouched for two decades — post Kargil — will have to addressed by DPC if this exercise is not to become a case of old wine in a new bottle. For instance, will India remain wedded to a resource allocation pattern where the Army receives the majority of the funding? Are mountain strike corps the only means of dealing with the China anxiety? Is innovative cyber capability a more appropriate and affordable alternative? Does India have the material assets to do justice to the Indo-Pacific construct and should Delhi invest more resources in maritime and space capabilities?
These are complex national security issues that have bedevilled the Indian policy apparatus for years. The biggest North-South divide, it is often quipped, is between MoD and finance ministry who sit in the two imposing blocks on Raisina Hill. The current defence allocation in relation to GDP is below the optimum level and DPC will have to recommend a figure, devoid of defence pensions, that can sustain the nurturing of long-neglected military capability. This funding will also have to provide traction to ‘Make in India’ and related R&D.
In short, the list before the newly-minted DPC is long and this is the veritable tip of the military-defence iceberg. One hopes that the output of DPC will receive consensual political support when a new government is formed in 2019 — or sooner. Political dissonance over national security can make this welcome initiative a non-starter.
C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal