In 2011, Indian Army chief General VK Singh wrote a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that sent ripples across the country. In the letter, Gen Singh wrote that the Indian Army's combat weapons were in such a poor condition that they made India unfit for war.
Whether Gen Singh wrote that letter for professional gain or to realise personal ambitions may never be truly known. But the letter’s content did bring to the fore important issues plaguing the country’s defence forces — dismal military modernisation, poor defence preparedness and strained civil-military relations.
It is this taut tightrope of policy making and execution that Arackaparambil Kurien Antony has been treading on for the last seven years, making him, at the ripe age of 73, India’s longest-serving defence minister. Known for his carefully crafted 'non-corrupt' but 'status-quoist' image, Antony took over as defence minister from predecessor Pranab Mukherjee in October 2006. The only other person to have had a long stint as head of the ministry of defence was Babu Jagjivan Ram; he served as the country’s defence minister for six years over two terms — first from 1970-1974 under the Congress government and then again between 1977-1979 in the Janta Party government.
Antony failed to respond to several requests for an interview and did not respond to a questionnaire sent for this article.
Born in a Syrian-Catholic family in Cherthala, near Alleppey in Kerala, Antony has managed to remain equidistant from the church and from corruption. He has spent a better part of his four-decades plus political career occupying powerful positions. He assumed office as a cabinet minister under the PV Narsimha Rao-led Congress government in the 1990s, served three terms as the chief minister of Kerala and served at the Centre again under the Congress-led UPA 1 and UPA 2 governments. Antony was ranked among the 10 most powerful persons in the country by a leading, national daily in 2012.
While Antony himself has steered clear of controversies in the last seven years, he has antogonised the Army, Navy, Air Force and the strategic community. Among other things, they are riled by the defence ministry’s opposition to the creation of the office of a permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff committee (COSC) as recommended by the Naresh Chandra task force on defence reforms.
"He (Antony) is certainly an honest politician with impeccable integrity. But simultaneously, he is also the worst defence minister India has seen in the last 65 years,” said retired Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak. Kak based his observation on the “sad delay” in India’s military modernisation and also on Antony’s “self obsessed” nature which, Kak says, is likely to have disastrous implications on the country’s defence preparedness. Kak served in the Indian Air Force for nearly four decades.
“His personal honesty cannot prevent corruption in the ministry. Scams continue to take place, adding to delays and creating impediments for genuine projects,” said a retired senior army official pleading anonymity.
A senior journalist from Kerala, Hari Kumar, points to Antony’s past to say: “He carefully plans his resignation such that he moves to a better and more powerful assignment.” When Antony resigned from Narsimha Rao's cabinet, he was made chief minister of Kerala. A year after he resigned as Kerala chief minister in 2004, he was made the Union defence minister.
Defence procurement under Antony’s tenure has taken a setback, with several deals, such as Tatra trucks and AugustaWestland choppers, being scrutinised over alleged irregularities and kickbacks. This is apparent by the continuing absence in the Indian Army of towed and self-propelled 155mm howitzers for the plains and the mountains, according to Gurmeet Kanwal of the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA). “The Air Force’s plan to acquire 126 multi-mission, medium-range combat aircraft to maintain an edge over the regional air is also stuck in the procurement quagmire,” wrote Kanwal in a recent IDSA paper.
Under Antony, the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) has been amended several times, most recently in April 2013, to strengthen the scrutiny in the system. “In effect, it still favours the defence PSUs over the private sector. MNCs are allowed to bring in only up to 26 per cent FDI as against 74 per cent for non-defence sector joint ventures," wrote Kanwal. Many analysts feel that even the indigenisation of defence technology, vehemently advocated by Antony, is a ploy to appease public sector undertakings, who consider him to be their “my baap”.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on defence in its report presented to the Parliament this April stated that there has been a “steady decline” in the number of defence contracts signed during the 11th five-year plan period from 2007-08 to 2011-12. The number of contracts signed each year during the 11th plan period is 84 in 2007-08, 61 in 2008-09, 49 in 2009-10, 50 in 2010-11 and 52 in 2011-12, said the report.
Insiders say that bureaucrats in the defence ministry have sufficient power to scuttle defence deals as Antony is known to give a free hand to the bureaucracy. Many claim this helps Antony, an atheist who follows spiritual guru Mata Amritanandamayi, save his skin when controversies erupt.
India is expected to spend approximately $100 billion over the 12th and 13th defence five-year plans on military modernisation. “We need a person who is not pro-self, but pro-India, and can thus utilise the resources to the best, rather than sit on files for the sake of personal, intangible gains,” said Kak.
Professor Srikant Kondapali of the Centre for East Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University said: “Antony cannot function in a vacuum. He may wish to spend a trillion dollars on defence procurements, but does the country’s defence budget allow him to do so? Besides, India is procuring equipment and things are moving.”
Manoj Joshi, a senior journalist and an expert on national security affairs, says that Antony’s term has been one of “failure and missed opportunities.” “Here is the need to integrate the training, logistics, acquisition and some war-fighting functions of the three services to obtain the biggest bang for the buck. It is unfortunate that India usually commits itself to reform after it is hit by a crisis,” said Joshi.
Critics say that Antony has failed to show clarity on what the defence ministry stands for. Even though he customarily mentions China as a 'challenge' and 'potential enemy number one' — words earlier used by then defence minister George Fernandes in 1998 — Antony fails to put forth his stance or vision for India vis-a-vis its neighbours.
The challenges for the defence ministry have only been increasing and with the rise in the number of ceasefire violations by Pakistan along the Line of Control and repeated incursions by China on the Line of Actual Control, the defence minister cannot afford to be viewed as indifferent.
"Unfortunately ministries are busy outsmarting each other at most times, and fail to make any clear policy or even a statement,” said Kondapali, who believes that India’s defence policy has been consistent over the years.
But the fact that the ministry of defence is without military expertise and has no formal strategic thinker cannot be overlooked. This theory of hollowed leadership is made apparent by reports that the National Security Council, an advisory body, has met just once in the last three years.
Besides, Antony has been skipping events that are strategic from a defence diplomacy perspective. In June, Antony refused to attend the ShangriLa Dialogue convened by the International Institute of Strategic Studies on defence issues in Singapore. Two months later, in August, he skipped the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) as well as a meet organised by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei.
The fact that Antony chose not to meet the defence ministers of the United States, China, Japan, Russia, Australia, South Korea, and New Zealand reflects that “defence diplomacy and building strategic relationships” even with neighbours and stakeholders is not high on his radar.
2013 defence budget: Rs 2.03 lakh crore
Capital expenditure (capex): Rs86,741 crore
Army: Rs 17,883.83 crore
Navy: Rs 24,149.03 crore
Air Force: Rs 39,208.84 crore
Major procurement programs
Multi-billion dollar deal for procuring 126 multi-role combat aircraft
$2 billion deal for procuring six mid-air refueling tankers
Six additional C-130J Super Hercules aircraft from the US
Deals under scanner during Antony’s tenure
2013: Violations in procurement of 12 VVIP choppers from Anglo-Italian firm AugustaWestland
2012: Alleged bribery charges in deal to buy 600 trucks from British firm Tatra Sipox
2009: Alleged kickbacks paid in deal for supply of components for Arjun battle tanks bought from SIFL and AMW-MGM
2009: Controversy erupted over Adarsh Housing Society in Mumbai. Meant for widows of, retired and serving army personnel, flats in the skyrise located in a prime area were allotted to scheming officials; several rules were flouted in the process
2007: Malpractice reported in the supply of rations to troops in high altitude areas
Light combat helicopters: Delayed by four years
Intermediate jet trainers: Delayed by two years
Light utility helicopter: Delayed by more than two years
Light combat aircraft: Under development for 35 years