In the Westminster system of government, cabinet ministers are autonomous, virtually a law unto themselves, and serve at the pleasure of the prime minister. If the PM is a strong, elected, leader, the fear of rubbing him the wrong way and consequently being out of the cabinet or demoted is enough reason to induce discipline. If, on the other hand, India finds itself stuck in a condition for the last eight years of an unelected and unelectable person as Prime Minister then we have government turning into a farce if not circus as is the case these days.
With Manmohan Singh deriving his political legitimacy from his party chief, Sonia Gandhi, who in turn waits with trepidation for the designated dynast, Rahul Gandhi, to show signs of political acumen and toughness to justify her installing him in the hot seat, government has subsided to a big tent show with different rings and new acts introduced every now and then. There is Sonia Gandhi’s and, in the personalized politics of the day, Congress Party’s son–in-law Robert Vadra’s financial legerdemain hogging the limelight in one ring, Sharad Pawar’s Lavasa ‘hill station’ antics in the next, and Salman Khurshid’s miracles involving the disabled in the third ring, and the people cannot but be appalled with the brazen-ness of these schemes.
A political cipher of a PM, however, looks on as anarchy rules even in the cabinet, with ministers, depending on their interest, or lack thereof, ideological bent and layman’s grasp of issues but mainly the political heft each carries, mostly marring the Ministries they are given charge of. Politicians leading ministries in the business of delivering government goodies and directly impacting the lives of people – ministries of health, agriculture, food, Public Distribution System, fertilizer, petroleum, coal, roads and highways, railways, etc., can apply their common sense and gut instincts to push programs they can proudly claim at the hustings as their own handiwork. Promoting their personal projects can, however, mean working against the PM’s national agenda, resulting in paralysis of government.
Then there’s Home Ministry, much prized by politicians, mainly because the appointee commands various coercive arms of the state – Intelligence Bureau, Central Bureau of Investigation, which can be marshalled to build dossiers on friends and foes alike, and that’s always helpful. It keeps Mulayam Singh and Mayawati in line and ensures Congress party’s extended stay in power. Then there are departments of government that are somewhat technical in nature – the several economic ministries and Defence, where basic instincts have to be backed by specialized knowledge.
It has been the misfortune of this country, starting with V.K. Krishna Menon in the late 1950s, to have strong-minded politicians as defence ministers who, like the proverbial tail, have mercilessly wagged the dog, sometimes reducing the Indian armed forces to a pitiful state. On the 50th anniversary of the 1962 war debacle, the press is full of Krishna Menon’s misdoings. Lucky, his successors were not shown up by the Chinese. We have had some strange Defence Ministers though and can recall the tenure of the redoubtable Yadav supremo, who was anything but mulayam in reducing the ministry to a translation bureau.
For the last eight years, the country has had the former Kerala Chief Minister, A.K. Antony, minding national defence. His resolve to clean up the military procurement process and rid the process of meddlesome middlemen spreading corruption, like bad water does dysentery, was ambitious. A man of probity, he was brought in to erase the Bofors taint off the Congress party. Ironically, he will be seen as having presided over defence scams (Augusta-Westland VIP helicopters, etc.) to complement other scams elsewhere in the UPA government. His policy of indiscriminate black-listing of vendor companies led to small players with good products – for example, Singapore Kinetics Ltd. with its light howitzer that in rigorous testing beat the competition — being ousted from the bidding process, and big players escaping the sieve altogether. Such as a supplier country that secures very large contracts, because it is seriously rumoured, it has perfected the art of channelling huge payoffs to the political apex – the same modus operandi used in Bofors, which clears deals. That’s the secret that other countries are cottoning on to. In the event, Antony seems more like the clueless chowkidar with single-barrelled gun by his side at the bank entrance to reassure customers, while robbers make off with the loot from an open vault accessed from an unlatched back door.
Worse, Antony seems to place his ideological antipathies above national security. His opposition to foreign bases has negatived any progress on formally accepting the Agalega North and South Islands offered by the Mauritius government which, if secured for the Indian Navy and air force, would immeasurably extend India’s strategic reach in the Indian Ocean. Still worse, is the defence minister repeating, the rhetorically high-sounding but, in practical military terms, inordinately foolish injunction to the armed forces to “defend every inch of Indian territory”. On October 18, it took the form of a declaration concerning the China border infrastructure, to wit, “We are now capable of defending every inch of our country”. Except in the lexicon of military-wise ignorant politicians, “every inch” quite literally means every inch, which in actual military operations amounts to a bad joke.
May be, the Army Chief General Bikram Singh can impart a half-hour tutorial to his Minister, gently informing him of the vagaries attending on the smallest military action. Antony can ask for a briefing from Revenue Intelligence, albeit belatedly, on how the commission-bribery system works, so his innocence, which in politics is a liability, doesn’t do his own standing more harm. Hopefully, it can set a precedent of the COAS educating the generalist civil servants as well, because the “every inch” rhetorical nonsense can backfire in crisis with the people expecting zero loss of ground in all hostilities, which as General J.N. Chaudhri, supposedly told Lal Bahadur Shastri when the PM first used that phrase during the 1965 War, he couldn’t guarantee.
]Published Oct 25, 2012 as “Defence Tutorial” in the ‘Asian Age’ at www.asianage.com/columnists/defence-tutorial-725 and the ‘Deccan Chronicle’ at www.deccanchronicle.com/columnists/bharat-karnad/defence-tutorial ]