In December 2019, a long-pending and critical evolutionary process of structural reforms in defence was unleashed by the Narendra Modi government. It was a commendable PMO-driven initiative.
It encompassed the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff, triple hatted as military adviser to the defence minister, the permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and the head of the newly created Department of Military Affairs. Notably, the position has mandated the CDS to establish the Theatre/Joint Commands.
The fact that defence reforms were required to be driven by the PMO reflects the platitude that India requires a strong PMO to override narrow interests of individual central ministries and state governments in order to serve national objectives.
It is never the ideal solution, but has been found to be an effective method in a diverse and complex country inhabited by a plethora of domestic power centres. Post-Kargil, the creation of the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), directly under the PMO to act as the think tank for it, has strengthened its ability for policy formulation.
However, the downside is the human proclivity to pander to perceived desires of strong prime ministers. Such a possibility will be perennial. In the case of this round of defence reforms under the Modi government, national security interests seem to be the predominant driver.
The implementation of the structural reforms in the Ministry of Defence is now a central challenge and a humungous one. Reforms have to be undertaken under the shadows of deepening geopolitical threats and major constraints in financial resources. It is also bereft of political guidance from a National Security Strategy, about which the less said the better. With time and financial resources at a premium, the envisaged defence reforms cannot be left only to the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to execute.
It requires political oversight and patronage like never before in India’s history. Also, mere political acumen of the defence minister is insufficient to steer the reforms.
Why India needs a defence minister with military background
Political acumen now needs sufficient understanding of military matters, preferably along with comprehension of public finances and dynamics of the defence industrial base. The reforms call for choices to be made that has major long-term consequences.