It will need to equip, modernise and restructure the armed forces to credibly deter Pakistan and dissuade China from aggression, all while building its potential. Let our political brethren not forget that apolitical armed forces are the strongest support to the edifice of democracy

by Yash Malhotra

With the din of elections over and India having a new government, there could not be a more opportune time for the new dispensation to ensure that important pointers from trans-border actions like Balakot do not get obliterated but are acted upon — after all, they give an even handed political heft to all. It could indeed serve as an outline of a blueprint for the future.

First, while it was heartening to see everyone praise the Indian Air Force after Balakot, the bitter war of chest-thumping and credit capturing between political parties that followed, with some even questioning whether the strike had taken place at all, was most unfortunate. Such events do propel security dialogue to the forefront, but military operations remain the preserve of the government for ordering them and the armed forces for carrying them out. They cannot be politicised by any political party claiming ownership to garner votes or worse, glorification of personalities. This has grave ramifications. It distorts the apolitical fibre of our armed forces and is a dangerous portent for national security. Let our political brethren not forget that apolitical armed forces are the strongest support to the edifice of democracy.

Second, while the government’s decision to strike and effectively combat Pakistan retaliation was the right one, between 2015 and 2018, Gurdaspur, Pathankot, Nagrota and Sunjuwan terror attacks went without a response and accountability. Is there an institutionalised decision making mechanism in place at all? India is perhaps the only major democracy where the armed forces headquarters are outside the apex governmental structure and, therefore, not institutionally part of the decision making process. It is imperative that we have an Act of Parliament which mandates the creation of a permanent Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), thereby making the armed forces a part of the decision making mechanism for cogent single point military advice to the government. It must be underlined that the Defence Planning Committee recently created under the chairmanship of National Security Adviser (NSA) has been established through an administrative order and thus remains unaccountable to Parliament. But it cannot replace the idea of a permanent CDS created by statute.

Third, the climate of elections pushed national security to the fore as an electoral issue, if rhetoric and party manifestos were anything to go by. Political parties need to take note that having spelt out big ticket plans and promises, public discourse is going to get sharper and better informed. If their manifestos offer to “speed up purchase of outstanding defence equipment and weapons or ensure defence spending is increased to meet the requirement of the armed forces,” then questions regarding the time plot for implementation and budgetary support cannot be faulted. On the other hand, if it promises to “establish the office of CDS to act as the principal adviser to the government on defence matters or provide statutory basis to the National Security Council and the office of NSA, with both being accountable to the Parliament,” it will have to be showcased with a time-bound plan for execution; or else the intent could rightly be questioned. People are a lot smarter than one perhaps believes. Against the backdrop of India fielding an ageing upgraded MiG-21 Bison to combat a modern Pak F-16 in the recent case, they’ll be justified in asking for modernisation to be expedited with reasons for delay, enlarging the query to: Are the defence forces properly equipped and organised? Are they being looked after? This is our ultimate tool, is it well honed? It is good that national security has become an electoral issue, but if the concern does not endure after votes are won, it will be the last time one will see the issue at centre stage. That will jeopardise the nation’s security.

Fourth, Pakistan’s nuclear bluff has been called, but has catapulted India such that it can no longer be seen as a soft State. For this perception to last, India will need to equip, modernise and restructure the armed forces post-haste for 21st century warfare to credibly deter Pakistan and dissuade China from aggression, while gradually building its potential.

Yash Malhotra is a retired lieutenant general, Indian Army