Under the Narendra Modi-led government, we have seen a refreshingly bold departure from the past when governments seemed unwilling to deal with two defence-related problems: the pension issue, and the more debilitating matter of reliance on foreign arms
May 26 marks eight years since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister of India,
and since 2014 a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance
(NDA) government has been in power at the Centre. Where defence and national
security are concerned, the people of India have been told that this government
is sufficiently alert and effective in protecting national interests and
The government has proved particularly adept in wrapping itself around the
flag and associating with the military. Unwittingly though while resolving some
longstanding issues, other equally baffling problems have been created.
The government has delivered, for instance, on its ‘One Rank, One Pension’
promise — a nettlesome issue previous governments kicked down the road for want
of financial resources. In the 2022 defence budget of Rs 5.25 lakh-crore, the
Rs 1.19 lakh-crore pensions bill combined with the outgo on payroll expenses
exceeds the spend on force modernisation and maintenance costs. Should this
trend continue, India will soon be able to afford either an adequately sized
force, or the weapons to equip it supported by minimal stocks of spares and
ammo — not both.
It may be recalled that based on the projected economic growth rate, and
assumption of annualised 10 percent increase the defence budget was expected to
reach the 3 percent GDP level recommended by the 11th Finance Commission by
2004. In reality, the defence budget has stagnated at the 2-plus percent of GDP
level, and budgetary increases have barely kept pace with inflation. The
result: No buck, no bang! Still the armed services have managed somehow to
contend with live, disputed, borders with China and Pakistan. How well? Don’t
There is a simple two-pronged solution that has not so far occurred to the Government of India. First, to match the military manpower cuts, the strength of 400,000 ‘defence civilians’ employed by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) should be slashed by half. India needs DRDO scientists, engineers, and the like, but can do without the horde of peons, clerks, stenographers, and section officers clogging up the MOD and other government offices everywhere. Official business conducted through a safeguarded computer network will eliminate the hopeless files-system and the endless numbers of babus associated with it, and coffee/tea machines can replace peons, and improve the MOD’s dismal operating efficiency.
Second, the defence civilian pensions should be shifted to the Government of
India administration pensions account, thereby, at a stroke, freeing up roughly
80 percent of the defence pensions bill monopolised by retired defence
civilians. It is monies the armed services can utilise to sharpen their
Through these two steps the Prime Minister can be credited for, (1)
modernising the Indian military, making it razor-sharp, without raising the
defence allocation, (2) digitising and de-bureaucratising the MOD (as a test
bed for upgrading the government’s conduct of business), and; (3) removing the
demeaning caste-like hierarchy featuring low-grade workers.
The other major change in the defence sphere is the drive to make India
self-reliant in armaments. Again, Modi had the right idea with his aatmnirbharta policy.
Except, in the years since he mooted it, there has been more confusion and
drift than genuine progress; a situation not improved by a series of updated
defence procurement procedure documents issued by the MOD that regularly trip
up Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and ministry officials as much as they do the
military brass and public and private sector defence industrial companies.
No one is quite sure what aatmnirbharta means. Do foreign
companies producing dated military products (F-16 fighter plane, say) fit the
guidelines? But doesn’t that undercut the objective? To compound the confusion,
Singh in the past year has released lists of military goods the armed services
can no longer import, including major weapons systems such as helicopters,
artillery guns, warships, and submarines. It is supposed to encourage
in-country research, design, development and production of advanced weaponry,
and support systems, save the country tens of billions of dollars in hard
currency, seed a vibrant defence industrial ecosystem to meet the armed
services’ equipment needs, to generate export revenues, and have a multiplier
effect on the rest of the economy.
Singh’s negative lists, prima facie, suggest the government wants results
fast, to obtain which it is prepared to throw all concerned parties into deep
water, and hope they learn to swim. This, incidentally, is the correct approach
to shock the armed services, the MOD, and defence public sector units,
habituated to weapons systems screw-drivered from imported completely knocked
down (CKD) and semi-knocked down (SKD) kits, out of their licensed manufacture
Denied the import option, the military will have to take ownership of
indigenous weapons projects and, crucially, prepare to fight with
Indian-designed armaments that may not initially meet the foreign weapons
standard. It is an unavoidable stage in making aatmnirbharta work.
The Modi years to-date have seen a refreshingly bold departure from the past
when the government seemed unwilling to deal with the two main tasks at hand,
namely, the pensions issue that had the entire military community up in arms,
and the more debilitating matter of reliance on foreign arms.
The solution for the first problem was enabled by the government’s readiness
to sequester the necessary funds and take a financial hit, and for the second,
was the decision to kickstart the Indian defence industrial economy by closing
off the imports channel, and incentivising the public sector and private sector
companies with promise of full order books. India may finally be on the way,
hiccups apart, to consolidating its military power.
Published May 25, 2022 as part of a series of articles assessing 8 years of the Modi government in Moneycontrol.com, at https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/opinion/modi-govt-8-two-vexing-defence-problems-the-narendra-modi-government-has-dealt-with-8572091.html