It has been eight years since the Modi government took charge in Delhi. A lot has happened since then. The cross-border strike in Myanmar, on the bases of NSCN (K), in retaliation to an ambush on an army convoy in Chandel district in June 2015, was the first message that India sent that it would no longer accept attacks on its soil. Pakistan did not take the hint. Indian special forces hit Pakistan terrorist camps across the LoC in retaliation to a terrorist strike in Uri in September 2016. Pakistan managed to hide its losses from the public but ignored the message. The airstrike on Balakot followed Pulwama in February 2019, and Pakistan understood that the new Indian government meant business. Since then it has been careful.
China attempted to push into Doklam in 2017 but was stalled by Indian forces. India refused to budge, sending the message that it will not bend where national interests are concerned. Ultimately, it was diplomacy which resolved the standoff. China attempted to intrude in Ladakh. It was blocked. The Galwan clash of June 2020 shook the Chinese. China has still not accepted its true casualty figures, while India acknowledged its losses. The occupation of the Kailash Ridge indicated that India possesses the will to push China onto the defensive. This was a strong message. Chinese infrastructure development in Ladakh is also aimed at enabling China to move forces rapidly to counter Indian offensive actions. Defensive India has begun displaying offensive content.
The armed forces had no enhancement in capabilities during the 10 years that AK Antony was the defence minister. His fear of tarnishing his clean image being the main reason. On multiple occasions, large parts of the capital budget were surrendered. There were even shortfalls in ammunition holdings. The Modi-led BJP government was also slow at the start. There were four defence ministers during its first tenure with Arun Jaitley holding dual charge of defence and finance on two occasions, Manohar Parrikar and finally Nirmala Sitharaman.
Change commenced with Manohar Parrikar occupying the chair. Government to government deals were signed leading to capability enhancement. Despite having two finance ministers who had handled defence there was no understanding of national security and resultant enhancement for defence in the national budget. The Rafale deal signalled the government’s willingness to build capabilities, despite opposition claims of corruption. India inked the S-400 Missile system from Russia ignoring threats of sanctions from the US.
The Modi government began to change the concept of management of defence. Bipin Rawat was appointed as Chief bypassing two seniors mainly because the government believed he was the right individual for the task. This has rarely happened. His appointment as the Chief of Defence Staff by the Modi 2.0 government with a mandate to create theatre commands was the largest reform in military affairs undertaken by any government since independence.
However, his untimely demise in a helicopter crash stalled the process as the government has yet to announce a reliever. There are reports that the government is reassessing the CDS concept. Delay in appointing a CDS sends a wrong message that the government is reconsidering its decision of creating theatre commands and has doubts about its own assessed reforms.
Simultaneously, the government is pushing populist schemes like the Tour of Duty while working towards the reduction of manpower. These are currently under discussion with the government aimed at ironing out shortcomings and obtaining consensus. Other decisions, including inducting women into the National Defence Academy, are noteworthy. The defence budget remains stalled at a fairly low percentage of the GDP. However, the Indian armed forces have come of age and are considered a reckonable force, especially after they displayed aggressiveness against China and Pakistan.
The Modi government understood the adverse impact of dependency on global markets for military modernisation. Growing animosity between the US and Russia resulted in demands on India for moving away from Russian weapons. It was compounded by sanctions imposed on Russia post the Ukraine crisis. The move towards Aatmanirbhar Bharat was a logical flow. Currently, global defence concerns are being wooed to establish manufacturing hubs in India. With government push, the quantum spent on local procurement has been increasing. The process has taken root, it is unlikely there will be any pullback. Shortfalls in capabilities remain, however, these will be overcome with time.
The government has yet to publish a National Security Strategy. This forms the basis of all defence planning, capability development and allocation of funds. It also outlines cooperation between different government departments on matters concerning national security. Discussions on the same have been held by the NSA however the document has yet to see the light of day. Its absence has led to reforms being pushed by the government based on perceptions of the PMO rather than on national security assessments.
In his first major speech at the biannual meeting of senior commanders in December 2015, Prime Minister Modi emphasised his vision to transform the armed forces. He hinted at manpower reduction, with the infusion of technology. He stated that his intent was to develop capabilities needed for the forces, as well as push for domestic defence research and production. However, with the appointment of four defence ministers in its first tenure, the government acted contrary to what the prime minister had mentioned. There was hardly any forward push on reforms.
Most major changes were witnessed during Modi 2.0. The announcement of a CDS, creation of theatre commands, Aatmanirbhar Bharat and corporatisation of ordnance factories were resorted to in the past couple of years. While there was some movement in Modi 1.0, primarily, Modi 2.0 enhanced military diplomacy. Increased visits by serving officers, joint exercises, participation in global military events and enhancing training vacancies in friendly nations, enhanced the professional image of the Indian armed forces.
Few governments in India have had the mandate the current dispensation has. Unless this is exploited, reforms pushed, national security strategy published, its efforts would be disjointed. The forward movement has commenced and must continue, though in an organised and planned manner, rather than haphazard as they are currently.
The author is a former Indian Army officer, strategic analyst and columnist. Views expressed are personal.