PRIME Minister Narendra Modi recently addressed the Combined Commanders’ Conference in Bhopal. This annual event acquired considerable significance since deliberations were being held against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine that had just crossed the 400-day mark and the simmering tension with China across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), from Galwan in eastern Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh.
However, the official press release on this critical meeting was terse — a mere 136 words. Later, PM Modi tweeted, “Took part in the Combined Commanders’ Conference in Bhopal. We had extensive discussions on ways to augment India’s security apparatus.”
This was disappointing, for the national security edifice is facing multiple challenges, and absent any meaningful deliberations in Parliament, the nation is perplexed about the broad contours of India’s military preparedness when there is so much geopolitical animation across many interconnected tracks — domestic, regional and global.
The most urgent challenge which appears intractable is the material status of India’s military inventory, which is largely dependent on equipment/spares and major platforms sourced from Moscow. Informed assessment indicates that there have been disruptions in the supply cycles and it is evident that Russia is not in a position to meet its export commitments in a satisfactory manner given its own parlous military inventory status and steady depletion due to the war in Ukraine.
Hence, the degree to which this geopolitical exigency has degraded India’s ‘security apparatus’ warranted objective, factual and informed deliberations among the top civil and military leaderships and one can only hope that the Bhopal conference enabled such interaction in an effective manner for adequate ‘augmentation’.
The larger politico-diplomatic context with strategic implications for India’s major power engagement was also provided in the run-up to the Bhopal conference. Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first foreign visit to the Kremlin after being re-elected for the third term and in Moscow, he and his host Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a document — titled ‘Deepening the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for the New Era’ — in which the two leaders stated, “We share the view that this relationship has gone far beyond the bilateral scope and acquired critical importance for the global landscape and the future of humanity.”
It was amply evident during the Xi visit that the Beijing-Moscow relationship was being framed in a distinctive template, wherein the two leaders saw their bilateral relationship as one that had acquired palpable urgency and relevance to resist ‘hegemony, despotism and bullying’. The unstated reference to the US needs little amplification.
India, which figures among the world’s top importers of military inventory, is in a difficult position, for its traditional and preferred arms supplier has been Moscow, going back to the Cold War period when the former USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was an empathetic benefactor. After the end of the Cold War, India sought to diversify its supplier base and since 2009, the US has emerged as a significant supplier.
Yet, the Indian military inventory dependence on Russia continues and it is unlikely that Beijing will remain non-committal in the years ahead about the Moscow-Delhi relationship — more so the strategic strand related to India’s sea-based deterrent.
The fiscal constraints under which the Indian military is functioning also came into focus when the 35th Report of the 17th Lok Sabha’s Standing Committee on Defence was tabled before Parliament on March 21. The most important takeaway from this report is the trend line, wherein successive defence budgets over the last three years have ostensibly increased in rupee terms, but have decreased as a percentage of the GDP (gross domestic product).
In 2023-24, the total allocation for defence is Rs 5,93,537 crore and this is estimated to be 1.97 per cent of the GDP; the corresponding figure for 2020-21 was 2.4 per cent of the GDP. This is the first time that the defence budget has fallen below 2 per cent since the late 1950s. Furthermore, in the same period, the dollar has moved from Rs 76.5 (April 1, 2020) to Rs 82.1 (April 1, 2023), thereby reducing the value of the foreign exchange component available for capital and technology acquisition from external sources.
While belt-tightening has become the default position for the Indian military, the Standing Committee report had an intriguing formulation, wherein the Defence Secretary, queried about this decline in relation to the GDP, averred that “while 3 per cent for defence is the accepted norm, it is not necessary for India”.
He informed the parliamentarians, “Three per cent of the GDP will be around Rs 10 lakh crore, if we take our next year’s GDP to be around $3,200 billion. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) may not be able to absorb 3 per cent of the GDP. We may not require that much. What is required for the MoD has (already) been allocated.”
This is an incongruous statement by the Defence Secretary if the institutional record of the ministry is reviewed. It merits recall that a former Cabinet Minister during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee years and an illustrious Army officer, Maj Gen BC Khanduri (retd), had served as the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Defence in 2014-18 and his reports were candid in drawing attention to the increasing obsolescence of the material state of the Indian fauj and the need for increasing fiscal allocation in a sustained manner.
Given the current monetary trend, it is hard to make out how the national security apparatus will be ‘augmented’ with shrinking budgetary support.
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