Dear Sri Antony, It is not often that I take the liberty of writing public letters to eminent national leaders like you who have such onerous responsibilities to discharge – but please allow me this exception.
At the outset felicitations are due to you, for very soon (July 10, 2012 ) you would have the distinction of being the longest serving Defence Minister of India – surpassing the record held by the charismatic and controversial Krishna Menon. It is a coincidence that you belong to the same state of Kerala but the contrast could not be more striking. Your political sagacity, natural modesty and frugality, personal probity and innate courteousness is well-known and the affectionate reference to you as Saint Antony is not misplaced!
However many Indians also associate Krishna Menon with the ignominy of 1962 and the humiliating border war with China and both catharsis and closure remain elusive after 50 years. Having assumed office in late October 2006, during the concluding phase of UPA I, you have now been at the helm of the Indian defence establishment for almost six years and the track-record Sir, is disappointing. I say this with candor and am following the dictum that on matters of national security, we on the outside need to speak truth to power – however unpalatable – lest the nation inadvertently repeat the 1962 experience.
The image of the Indian military has taken a severe beating in recent months and while the more visible incidents are the controversy over the Army Chief’s date of birth and the Tatra truck scandal, the overall review of the Indian defence and military profile remains uneven. Yes, the success of Agni V and the induction of the SSN from Russia, the INS Chakra ( nuclear propelled submarine ) as also the launch of the indigenous Arihant are cause for pride and satisfaction but this does not absolve you and the Cabinet Committee on Security Political Affairs from perceived abdication in decision-making.
In this brief missive, allow me to flag three major areas for your consideration. UPA II assumed office in 2009 with the venerable Dr. Manmohan Singh as the PM for a second tenure and you as his trusted Defence Minister against the backdrop of the successful conclusion of the India-U.S civilian nuclear agreement . The estrangement in the bi-lateral relationship was removed and it was envisaged that a mutually beneficial defence relationship based on the Mukherjee-Rumsfeld Agreement of June 2005 would be progressively realized.
However in mid 2012 it is not evident if the political apex has come to a clear and objective determination about India’s strategic and security relation ship with the USA, against the irrefutable realities of the Asian strategic framework over the next decade that include the rise of China , the imminent US withdrawal from the Af-Pak theater in 2014 – and the steady deterioration in the internal dynamic in Pakistan.
India’s security concerns apropos China are well-known to the Indian citizen and include the recall of 1962, the unresolved territorial and border dispute, the Sino-Pak WMD cooperation with linkages to terror and the steady erosion of India’s profile in the neighborhood. Indian diplomats are doing a commendable job in keeping complex external relations on even keel but they would be better served if India’s defence preparedness and military capacity are more credible than what they really are.
And you Sir, are the only person in India who knows the unalloyed truth about the material and moral texture of the Indian military. I will not allude to the Army Chief’s letter to the PM that was leaked but raise a more fundamental question. What is the remedial measure you have in mind to redress the reality that India is the world’s largest importer of conventional arms in the world – and that the reason is the lack of appropriate indigenous capacity. Are the reasons to do more with ineptitude or turpitude ? The Kelkar and Rama Rao committee reports for reform in this sector remain cloistered. The task is Herculean but cleaning this stable this needs wide and informed debate – the reformation of the defense indigenization and production sector.
This is a HUGE task and can be enabled only if the political apex can take an objective long-term view about how India will engage with the major military suppliers in the world. Will Moscow remain our most critical supplier ? Is Paris the new choice ? Has India jettisoned Israel ? (If media reports are accurate, you had apparently discouraged the visit of the Israeli Defence Minister for political compulsions. ). Where does the USA figure in this matrix ?
India’s security predicament is distinctive, in that the challenge from China is rarely articulated by the political establishment and the contours of the engagement with the USA remain opaque and deliberately blurred. Whether such critical bi-lateral relationships can be nurtured by stealth remains moot and the need for your Ministry to define the security challenges and opportunities for the nation in a holistic manner is imperative.
The second area is that of stasis in higher defence management. The post Kargil review remains suspended on the UPA it was hoped that the gamut of civil-military relationship would re-wired in a radical manner to cope with the realities of a new century. Alas that has not happened and one can only plead with you to accord this matter the highest priority in the two years that UPA II has before it.
And finally Minister – the morale of the Indian military remains robust – despite the recent media reports about coups that did not happen and incidents of indiscipline. But the need to restore institutional equipoise is urgent. In closing, the status of the ex-servicemen over the last three years does not embellish your office. The sight of these veterans returning their medals to a Supreme Commander who is not ready to receive them is stark symbolism - where comment is superfluous.
I hold you Sir, in high personal esteem and am confident that in your sagacious manner you will redress these matters.
Dear Sri Antony,
It is not often that I take the liberty of writing public letters to eminent national leaders like you who have such onerous responsibilities to discharge – but please allow me this exception.