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As India and China are locked in a tense standoff, Mark Twain’s famous quip “History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes” reminds one of the 1962 war when grand delusions of peace with Beijing had blinded Delhi’s strategic vision. The “Hindi Cheeni, Bhai Bhai” sentiment was reduced to a mockery when the Chinese soldiers came across the McMohan Line in the then North-East Frontier Agency [NEFA] on October 20, 1962. The conflict lasted for a month till China announced a ceasefire on November 21. Revisiting the past, one is reminded of the conversation between then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and General Cariappa in 1962 when the former, on being apprised of the glaring Chinese threat, responded, “It is not the business of the C-in-C to tell the PM who is going to attack us where. In fact the Chinese will defend our NEFA Frontier. You mind only Kashmir and Pakistan.” By ignoring the advice of the military leadership, the Chinese defeat proved to be a self-inflicted injury seen by some as a “war fought by soldiers but lost by politicians and Generals”. It took us an embarrassing defeat in 1962 to realise the need for the Army’s operational autonomy and military deterrence.

After almost six decades, India is now well postured and prepared to face China, yet a sense of Deja Vu took over on the night of June 15, 2020, reviving the memories of 1962. After almost 58 years, in a most unexpected turn of events, the two armies came face to face at Ladakh’s Galwan valley, dragging both the neighbours to the brink of war. After eight rounds of military level talks on disengagement, the reality on ground remains frozen. China continues to threaten India cross the 3,488 kms long LAC and little is likely to change as winters set in.

Amidst the war sirens and border tensions, on October 19, 2020 the Indian Express carried a news report suggesting a slew of measures including ceremonial austerity, improved manpower utilisation and logistical consolidation in the Indian Army by “doing away with Army Day and Territorial Army Day parades in New Delhi, cutting down on ceremonial practices such as brass bands and quarter guards, individual Officers’ Mess and CSD canteen for units in peace stationsBattle Honour Day and Raising Day celebrations…”. These recommendations are believed to be the outcome of senior army-level deliberations on “Optimisation of Manpower and Resources: Review of Practices and Facilities in Indian Army” held earlier this year. On 29 October, a draft Government Sanction Letter (GSL) indicated a drastic change in pension and retirement policy, attracting immense criticism from the serving and veteran community.

By March, the mood of the country had become sombre due to Covid-19. A nation-wide lockdown was announced on 21 March and the pandemic was being seen as a national security threat. In anticipation of economic slowdown, budget cuts were inevitable, including in the defence sector. On April 8, the Finance Ministry categorised all departments and ministries into three groups with specified spending limits.

Category A included ministries critical to Covid-19 management and thus had no budgetary constraints. This included health, pharmaceuticals, consumer affairs, AYUSH, textiles, rural development, railways and civil aviation.

Category B including Defence Services (Revenue), Capital outlay on Defence Services, Defence pensions, external affairs, home, cabinet, posts, fertilisers, road transport, the departments of revenue and financial services, the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha and the secretariat of the Vice President were asked to expend up to 20 per cent of annual budget in the first quarter.

Category C with over 50 departments such as Ministry of Defence (civil), Telecom, Commerce, Electronics and Information Technology were asked to limit expenses to within 15% of budget estimates.

The Ministry of Defence, falling in Category B, was not immune to the budgetary cuts. However while announcing the Army’s decision to reprioritise and defer some expenses in wake of Covid-induced budgetary cuts, the COAS Gen Naravane assured that “pay, allowances and operational expenditures” will not be compromised. Fiscal management had become a major challenge for the cash-stricken Armed Forces which were allocated only 1.49 per cent of the GDP in the annual budget and merely 35 per cent capital outlay for modernisation. In 2018, parliamentary committee led by BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi condemned India’s poor defence expenditure at 1.56 per cent of the GDP in 2017-18 at its lowest since the 1962 Sino-Indian war, and also raised concerns about low capital budget allocation. Not much has changed since then.

MoD’s Budget Figures

YearMoD’s total budget(INR Crores)Defence Budget* (INR Crores)Share of Capital expenditure (% of defence budget)Share of defence budget in GDP
2018-194,04,3652,79,30593,982 (34%)1.48 %
2019-204,48,8203,05,2961,03,394 (34%)1.49 %
2020-214,71,3783,23,0531,13,734 (35%)1.44%

Source: Laxman Behera (India’s Defence Budget 2019-2020, IDSA); Laxman Behera (India’s Defence Budget 2020-21, IDSA)

Note: *Defence budget refers to Defence Service Estimates (DSE) which includes the three armed forces and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO)

Finance Minister Smt. Nirmala Sitharaman, who was the former Defence Minister, made no mention of the defence budget during this year’s annual budget speech indicating that other sectors had been prioritised over defence. Defence analysts view the minor appreciation of 5.8 per cent in the defence budget (from INR 3,05,296 Cr in 2019-20 to INR 3,23,053 Cr in 2020-21) as insufficient to cater to the needs of the Armed Forces. Defence analyst at IDSA, Laxman Behera surmised that a “major growth” in the defence establishment’s budget remains unlikely in the “near to medium term”. As per his assessment, “The MoD and the wider defence establishment would have to perforce learn to live with the limited growth in defence spending at least till 2021-22”. One is compelled to repeat Michael E. O’ Hanlon’s question; “How can the nation modernize its military, stay vigilant against rising great powers, handle existing challenges, and save some money in the process?” His words encapsulate the Indian quandary, except that there are no simple answers.

By mid-July, China-born Coronavirus, ensuing lockdown and PLA-led border tensions had left the country divided between a health pandemic and border crisis. The Armed Forces were back in the spotlight. By October, seven rounds of high-level military talks had been held, with no progress on ground. Amidst immense trust deficit, there has been heavy military deployment with at least 50,000 troops each, along the LAC on both the sides. As the gravity of the situation became more apparent, the central government revoked the Category II budget cuts on October 1 in order to facilitate procurement and reduce the fiscal burden on the Armed Forces. At a macro level, financial liberty and budget concessions are meant to ease the procurement process and equip the troops stationed in new positions in Eastern Ladakh. However no war can be won if the morale of the troops is low. To quote Colonel GFR Henderson, a distinguished British officer and military historian: “Human nature must be the basis of every leader’s calculations. To sustain the moral[e] of his own men; to break down the moral[e] of his enemy – these are the great objects which, if he be ambitious of success, he must always keep in view”.

Amidst such tense and serious military standoff, the proposal for ceremonial austerity and pension cuts seems bizarre, immature and irrational, mainly for three reasons: the timing, manner and nature of measures proposed. While reforms may be necessary in the long run, this discussion seems pointless at a time when the country is on the edge of a full-blown conflict with China while battling Pakistan on the Western front. In a situation like this, every policy decision including austerity is symbolic of a nation state’s perception and priorities. If the intention behind austerity is to generate revenue for modernisation, Lt Gen H S Panag’s suggestion that, “rather than pushing for cosmetic austerity measures, the CDS and the Chiefs should focus on rooting out corruption in revenue/capital procurement” is well placed.

Proposing ceremonial consolidation and pension cuts in the Army at such a crucial time doesn’t carry any positive message or connotation, and is not likely to boost the morale of the troops, if not lower it further. The leadership’s decision to muse over the austerity could have been postponed, or at least been kept away from the media. While the armed forces are busy bracing for the conflict undeterred by such debates, these proposals have not gone down well with the veterans as well as the serving community.

The proposal to discontinue celebration of events such as Kargil Diwas and Army Day and consolidation of army units and canteens may seem inconsequential to national security and a significant contributor to the national coffers. However both the assumptions seem to be ill-informed. Ceremonies are meant to honour the past and present of the Army. These events, when celebrated at national level are symbolic of a nation’s pride in its armed forces. Acquainting masses with the valour of our Armed Forces instils a sense of collective pride and respect. The proposals discount the relevance of such events and traditions, and are likely to further alienate the Army from the masses.

On the other hand, the proposed pension cuts are likely to result in significant savings since pensions constitute 28 per cent of MOD’s budget – the second largest component of MOD budget after DSE. Given the serious budgetary constraints, it makes financial sense. However the country must then brace for lower recruitments, higher attrition, disappointed serving fraternity and disgruntled veterans.

Albert Hirschman’s “Exit, voice, and loyalty” framework categorises people’s response to discontent into two categories, namely, voice (take action) or exit (to leave the situation). These two choices interplay with a sense of loyalty towards the organisation. Austerity measures are a good test of military’s response and resilience. The Dutch example is a case in point. In 2011, Netherlands witnessed serious protests by “6,000 mostly uniformed Dutch military personnel” who were opposing the austerity measures proposed by the state after the 2010 financial crisis. A primary study of the responses of Dutch protestors published in Military Psychology journal in 2018 analysed four tentative strategies: “voice (collective protest), exit (leaving the organization), silence (deliberately deciding not to protest), and neglect (engaging in anti-organizational behavior)” and found out that “respondents resorted the least to voice; to neglect a bit more often, and to exit and silence the most.” This was in response to austerity measures during peace time and the country was not engaged in any ongoing territorial disputes unlike India. In the middle of an ongoing border standoff with a powerful neighbour, can India afford a similar mix of voice, neglect and exit response from its rank and file? The remarks made by serving as well as retired officers in the media reflect the mood of the forces and must be taken seriously.     

These proposals seem to be based on two assumptions – the philanthropy approach, which assumes that the soldiers and officers trained to keep “nation above self” would be undeterred by the monetary and non-monetary austerity proposals, and thus the morale and motivation would remain unaffected. The second private sector approach of military management, which suggests that pensions be made commensurate to the years of service, assumes that this will be broadly acceptable, given that the economy is in a poor shape, the private sector has no absorbing capacity and the armed forces are still better taken care of vis-a-vis other industries. Reading between the lines, the message from MOD to the armed forces seems to be clear: You need us more than we need you.  

A voice from MOD (civil), the former financial advisor (acquisition) at MoD Amit Cowshish said the ministry does not normally follow “the practice of evaluating the financial impact of the policy initiatives” and, therefore, there are no numbers or reports suggestive of the likely savings from the proposed reforms. As per his understanding, consolidation of messes and canteens may initially require additional expenditure to expand the capacity and infrastructure of the single institutes left behind at each station to cater to the entire station’s needs. In the medium and long run, however, some savings can be expected because of such consolidation, which can be utilised for meeting smaller operational and personal needs of the troops or meeting other smaller needs. However, he added, these savings may not be enough to meet the modernisation needs or address the larger fiscal constraints faced by the defence budget. The magnitude of the problem can be gauged from the gap between the requirement projected by the armed forces and the amount allocated to them which has “increased from approximately INR 23,000 Crores a decade back to more than INR one lakh crores this year (FY 2020-21), more than half of which is under the capital segment of the defence budget”. Thus the financial logic behind the ceremonial and logistical reforms remains unclear. The Department of Military Affairs (DMA) apparently feels that the armed forces can do without “ostentatious celebration of the past glory or old life style” and should instead focus on pooling of the resources in a trade-off between continuing with the colonial legacies on the one hand and the imperatives of curbing expenditure on the other hand. He admitted that discontinuing old customs and practices can impact the morale of the troops, but added that it will be reasonable to expect that the DMA has taken this into account and has concluded that the proposed measures will have a transient impact on their morale, and whatever savings accrue could be better utilised for operational needs and improving the quality of life of the troops.

Sharing his concern regarding the timing and nature of proposed recommendations, Lt Gen. A B Shivane (Retd), Former Director General Mechanised Forces (DGMF) and GOC of Strike Corps at Mathura stated that while reforms with changing times are the need of the hour, they must be weighed carefully for cost-benefit factor when it impacts the morale and motivation of a soldier. The basic edifice of the Indian Army is embedded in the spirit of ‘NAAM, NAMAK AUR NISHAN’ at the cutting-edge level, which is the Unit. Be it Kargil or Galwan in recent times, it was the unit ‘izzat’ foremost, besides leadership and training which produced the desired results. A soldier draws his inspiration and motivation from unit institutions like Officer / JCO Messes / NCO clubs, motivation rooms/archives and events like Battle Honour/Raising Days which not only reflect their rich history but also are a source of the spirit de corps. Adequate austerity measures and guidelines for these institutions / events are already in place. Messes and CSD are also required in field/training and war configuration conditions, and have stood the test of time. CSD is a major welfare measure for troops and the limited profit empowers the unit commander to improve the quality of life of his men in the unit. It is ironical that instead of empowering the Commanding Officers and Units, steps are being discussed and brought to fore in the social media to dilute their role and means. The reforms should have focussed on modernisation, restructuring and providing greater teeth to the forces in the present circumstances when both the Western and Northern borders are active and situation remains critical. Reforms must be top-down where a lot is required at MoD level and Service Headquarter level rather than the more vulnerable subordinate level. Furthermore, they must have acceptability among the larger masses which are going to be impacted by the reforms for the next twenty to thirty years. Systemic erosion of institutions and military ceremonial events especially at subordinate levels could lead to degradation of the organisation. Additionally, Lt Gen Shivane said that the debate on austerity and reforms must be initiated internally and driven by feedback devoid of external influence or pressure at unit and sub-unit level, and then brainstormed by decision-makers for a deliberate and well-paced execution. Finally, the larger canvas beyond defence forces must not be the cheer-leaders who remain isolated from this process.

Commodore G Prakash (Retd), who has commanded seven units, and has been a commentator on military affairs, leadership, and higher Defence management, opined that, “While there is certainly a need for reforms within our armed forces, the nature, pace and timing of reforms are important. If we don’t get them right, it can be disorienting for the rank and file, who are engaged in operations on ground.” Further, he explained that the three armed forces, whose origins lie in the British armed forces, have evolved over the years, in a complex manner, undergoing Indianisation of customs, traditions and processes in bits and spurts. Any armed force that witnesses large scale technological changes along with long periods without employment in conventional conflicts undergo a natural transformation, which also reflects on their internal and higher defence management. Thus while addressing these issues, it is important to maintain strict confidentiality through well thought-out strategies. Echoing similar sentiments, Gp Capt Triloki Bhatara (Retd) labelled the proposals as a case of “right thinking, wrong timing”. While acknowledging the poor economic condition, the Air Force veteran emphatically stated that “cutting down budget of the defence services at such a crucial time will be the biggest folly”. Questioning the absence of similar austerity measures for other ministries and departments, he pointed out that these activities are “not meant to feed the ego of armed forces, but to instil a sense of pride and enthusiasm amongst the military men and women who defend our borders.” Keeping in mind the financial concerns of the MoD and union government, and the needs of the Armed forces, the CDS has to walk a tightrope. Nevertheless, his endeavour should be to address the concerns of both the institutes based on his strategic acumen while keeping in mind the national priorities. The proposals are not in sync with the current security landscape and are bound to attract derision from the forces. They can’t be expected to function at their best when the reports of austerity, consolidation and pension cuts are dominating the news. With Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) as its ex-officio secretary, the DMA is expected to serve as an integrative platform between the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence, and its role in communicating the needs of the armed forces becomes very crucial here. Amit Cowshish, while concluding his remarks underlined that, “the DMA, which surely understands the needs of the armed forces better than the civilian bureaucracy, considers it necessary to take the proposed measures as a part of the larger effort to cope with the resource crunch”. This also explains why all the three veteran officers called for a more assertive and forceful approach by the Army commanders and the CDS in upholding the best interests of the Armed Forces to the government.

The Indian Armed Forces have always been subservient to the civilian government as laid out by the constitution of the world’s largest democracy, but its contribution towards national security must not be taken for granted. Former Army Commander, Western Command Lt Gen KJ Singh’s contention that, “very little of this affects serving community and they continue to be in high morale and joshis optimistic and hopeful. However he also laments how “supersessions, social media, opening of cantonment and politicisation” have disturbed the fauji ecosystem, and calls for due “privacy and space” to restore the equilibrium. Political inertia and resistance are often seen as a hindrance to the military landscape and the national security architecture, and Stephen Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta in their book “Arming without Aiming” discuss how India has always lacked “the kind of political attention that is necessary to marry military modernization and strategy”.

The armed forces with their tough training have often substituted and supported the internal security agencies for riot policing and disaster management, besides their core duties. Is there any internal security institution which has the training, capability, expertise or will to swap with the Armed Forces and defend the national borders? A national security institution with absolutely no substitutability should never be cornered, even in the world’s largest democracy.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies

References :Hyperlinked from the article

By Divya Malhotra

Divya is pursuing her PhD from School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and is a non-resident fellow at Middle East Institute, New Delhi where she monitors Pakistan-Middle East relations. She completed BA Economics Hons from Panjab University, Chandigarh, MA Economics from Christ University, Bangalore and MPhil from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She was associated with Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi as a research intern, and has visited Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel, Nepal and USA for many conferences and study. Currently she is engaged as an Assistant Professor at Mount Carmel College in Bangalore.