Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to believe in the surprise element in all of his policy announcements. It is not just that he wants to surprise the people in general, and his political opponents especially, but that he even surprises himself and his own government as well.
The Prime Minister thinks that surprise moves will keep his government on its feet, and the unpreparedness of the government is not a matter of concern at all. This is because the policy announcement is all about impact more than the impact of the policy when it is implemented. So, the Agnipath announcement has all the elements of a surprise move without any serious thinking and planning behind it.
This time around, the Prime Minister did not make the announcement as is his wont. It was spelt out that the decision was taken by the Cabinet Committee on Security, and it was explained by none other than defence minister Rajnath Singh and the three service chiefs. But it carries the maverick vision of the Prime Minister, who is always on the lookout for radical and short-term solutions to India’s long-standing problems.
The PM hopes to achieve many things with this single decision. He wants to tackle the problem of unemployment; he wants to fulfil the Hindu right-wing’s pet idea that a society needs disciplined and obedient citizens, and the Army is the best place to achieve this goal.
There is no better way of undermining democracy than give people military training. The inspiration comes from Singapore and Israel, which have a compulsory national service for youngsters. The name of that is conscription. But here it is of course a voluntary temporary job scheme. And this would be the real test — as to how many people are willing to undergo the rigorous training of the Army and that too for short-term gains. The money that those who are demobilised take home is not sufficient either to build a house or start a business.
The service chiefs have not provided the rationale for the paradigm shift in the recruitment policy. What are the advantages of this new mode compared to the established one, both of the long route lying through the National Defence Academy (NDA) and the respective service training institutions. And we are not told whether the older system of recruitment will remain in place or not. For the moment it has all the attributes of a short-term job offer. If it is a way of pruning the salary and pension bill, then not much thought has gone into it.
The new thinking about a modern army is to make it lean and mean, not train too many people, throw 75 per cent of them out and retain 25 per cent. The emphasis is on special forces, and technology. Of course, you do not win wars without the boots on the ground, as the United States learned in both Iraq and Afghanistan. So, the numbers are needed, but you cannot go about the numbers game in a haphazard fashion like the Agnipath scheme.
One of the most vulnerable aspects of the Narendra Modi government has been in its thinking about defence matters. It has been a knee-jerk response right from April 2015, when Prime Minister Modi, on his visit to France, announced buying 36 Rafale fighter planes off the shelf, while shelving the long-term plan to buy 126 of them. There was no Plan B on how to make up for the required squadron strength of the Air Force. After much hesitancy, it was decided the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), which had been hanging fire since the 1980s, would take the place of Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). It has not been made clear whether the LCA is the same as the MMRCA. This is due to the Modi government’s obsession that defence production has to be indigenised. But there is no thinking as to how it has to be done, how it needs a base of high technology backed by first-rate scientific research, and there is no visible attempt to strengthen either of them. The compromises included in the defence procurement policy is to assess how many components of an equipment put together in India have been imported, and if they fall beneath a threshold, then it is considered indigenous. These are indeed half-hearted measures when there is no longer-term plan of building strong foundations on which to base an armaments industry. Asking foreign companies to manufacture in India is not the way to indigenise defence production.
We also find that the government is placing emergency purchase orders for assault rifles because the Army does not have enough of them. In January 2018, when Nirmala Sitharaman was the defence minister, an emergency purchase order for 72,400 assault rifles and 93,895 carbines was placed from “the global market”. In August 2021, the Indian Air Force placed an order for 70,000 AK-103 assault rifles from Russia. Meanwhile, troops on the Ladakh front have been provided with 1.5 lakh American Sig Sauer guns and 16,000 Israeli Negev light machine-guns. There is much exigency buying, which can and should be rationalised. The policy should be to equip the Armed Forces with the best possible weapons systems rather than indigenous systems which are not the best.
It is surprising that the Narendra Modi’s government’s defence policy has not been put under the microscope so far to show how shoddy it has been over the past eight years. The problem is a simple one, which can be seen in all spheres of governance. There is too much of grandstanding and too little of substance, whether it is the economy, the education policy and even foreign policy. The Prime Minister has been trying to bamboozle us with one new scheme after another, before we could scrutinise what each of these schemes has really achieved. It looks as though the government is in a hurry to move on newer things without bothering whether the earlier schemes have been implemented in some measure or not. The old adage that a rolling stone gathers no moss has never been truer than in today’s India.