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Government failures fall on the armed forces The Excelsior 26 May 2021
For years, the army had been demanding the raising of a Mountain Strike Corps (MSC), funds for modernization and making up deficiencies in war wastage reserves (WWR). All this was based on increased Chinese threats and possibilities of a two-front war. Governments at the centre, on the contrary, kept reducing defence budgets, compelling the army to scrap plans for raising of its MSC. Shortfall in capacities, impacted by years of low budgets, led to vast gaps in capabilities, essential to deter adversaries. Low holdings of ammunition impacting defence preparedness, were alarming, leading to the Vice Chief raising this with the Parliamentary Committee on Defence, but to no avail.
It even led to the then defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, reviewing holdings of WWR and reducing its days of holding, solely to stem criticism. This apathy of the government was because decisions concerning national threats and their possible impacts, were not the domain of armed forces, who were presumed to be responsible for it, but of National Security Advisors, who were either foreign policy experts or from the IPS.
The finance and external affairs ministries carried more weight than the defence ministry, in determining national security threats impacting allocation of funds for defence. Even within the defence ministry, views of bureaucrats were accepted, rather than armed forces service chiefs. Service chiefs had learnt to accept these shortcomings and manage their forces with what was allocated, cutting corners where necessary. They had given up projecting impact of lack of essential capabilities as there was no one willing to listen.
Within the current government, the general belief which existed was that Pakistan would not pose a major threat nor resort to war. This was accentuated by Pakistan’s reactions to the cross-border strike, post Uri, and the Balakote strike. It was believed that Kashmir would remain a trouble spot, which the army could handle, and the LoC would be active, with Pakistan being suppressed by strong retaliation. Globally the Kashmir issue would be diplomatically contained.
As far as China was concerned, the assumption was that there was no military threat. This was based on the over dozen meetings between national leaders and their assumed bonhomie in annual high-power summits as also large volumes of trade and investment. Doklam was considered as a one-off incident, unlikely to be repeated. This, despite, General Bipin Rawat raising at multiple forums high possibilities of China continuing its attempts at salami slicing. The government had, since it kept armed forces at a distance, failed to comprehend that capability gaps will be exploited by ambitious adversaries.
This attitude and thinking had also infiltrated into the minds of various intelligence groups, responsible for monitoring adversaries, and into perceptions and planning of armed forces top echelon. Hence when the Chinese intruded into Ladakh, all were caught napping. It was almost similar to what had transpired in Kargil in 1999, when the intelligence and army were caught on the wrong foot. Like Kargil, there was an immediate induction of forces and the Chinese blocked in their tracks. Thankfully, there was no requirement to launch physical operations for evicting the Chinese.
The government reacted on expected lines, releasing funds and granted special powers to the army to procure and make up shortfalls. The MSC was once again on the table. Procurements, which should have been done as part of normal course were now being pushed under emergency powers. Neither the government nor any of its agencies took any responsibility for their false assumptions, letting the army handle the crisis, knowing it will not back down. The fact that policy making, determining threats and desired capabilities to counter them as also allocating of funds are its responsibility, was ignored. The rest is well known.
The rapid spread of the second wave of the pandemic also caught governments, at the state and centre, on the wrong foot. They were unprepared, permitted major events including elections, religious gatherings and farmer rallies to continue, which further accentuated the spread. Some ministers, even stated in television interviews that there were no reports of the virus spreading in poll bound states, justifying their actions.
Within weeks, all these assumptions were proved wrong. The second wave came like a tsunami, engulfed the nation, overrunning existing medical facilities and taxing the medical fraternity beyond their capacity. Essential medicines and equipment including oxygen generating plants were in extreme short supply, leading to strictures from courts. Not a single bureaucrat or minister, responsible for preparing the nation or their state for the second wave, has been held accountable. All have shifted the blame to others or claimed that severity of the wave could not be assessed.
Surprised and shocked, the government fell back on the armed forces, once again. Medical personnel were pulled away from their primary duties and tasked to run the multitude of hospitals being rapidly established across the country. The air force was pressed into service to transport medical stores from abroad and within the nation to meet emergent needs.
Military technicians were employed to repair oxygen plants which were defunct for years, responsibility of which was with state governments. Like with Ladakh, funds were released to the armed forces for emergent procurement. Excess flights made by the air force will imply faster servicing and additional spare parts for aircraft entailing funds, enhancing pressure on servicing establishments and possibly impacting national security preparedness.
Most ministries appeared to have washed their hands off, as soon as the armed forces stepped in. Overall, the impression conveyed is that the battle against the pandemic is being fought by the medical fraternity and the armed forces. This is evident when the PM states, ‘Jal, Thal and Nabh, our armed forces have left no stone unturned in strengthening the fight against COVID.’
Time and again the nation has witnessed policy failures by the bureaucracy and government, for which no accountability has been fixed. Bureaucrats who bundle in planning, hide behind politicians, while politicians remain elusive. Unless examples are set, we as a nation will never learn but move from one crisis to the next. It is time this stops, and accountability is demanded.