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Repairing Relations With India's Neighbors

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  • December 13, 2015

    Three perennial problems beset Indian defense: relations with some of its immediate neighbors, especially Pakistan; human resource management; and modernization of the armed forces. To a large extent, defense preparedness is contingent upon the government's adroitness in managing these challenges.

    The 18 months since the National Democratic Alliance's spectacular ascension to power last summer have witnessed a fair amount of oscillation in the government's handling of these critical determinants of defense preparedness.

    Inviting the heads of the neighboring governments to the swearing-in ceremony of the newly elected government was a master stroke. It had the potential of generating a refreshing cordiality in India's relations with its neighbors, in particular Pakistan.

    Some of this advantage seems to have dissipated. Though some efforts are being made to arrest the drift, there is no denying that the relations between India and Pakistan lately have been in a free fall. Some of the statements from the top leaders of Nepal are disconcerting. Except for the historic land swap agreement with Bangladesh, if there has been any qualitative improvement in India's relations with other neighbors, it is not quite visible.

    To say the least, India will need to recalibrate its neighborhood policy to arrest the fast-deteriorating relations with some neighbors, adjust to the new developments in countries like Myanmar and consolidate relations with Afghanistan.

    Human resource management remains another area of concern. While there are no more unseemly confrontations such as when a former Army chief dragged the government to court, it would be naive to believe that things are back on the track.

    The Seventh Pay Commission was expected to address the real, or perceived, grievances of the armed forces concerning remuneration and decline in status vis-a-vis the civilian bureaucracy, but that does not seem to have happened. The government will have to brace itself for a long haul as implementation of the pay commission recommendations could open the proverbial Pandora's box, not the least because of its financial implications.

    Ex-servicemen, of course, continue to be agitated about the one-rank-one-pension (OROP) package announced by the government. There are reports of the OROP issue being taken to the court. That may actually be a blessing in disguise in that a court verdict could settle this emotional issue once and for all.

    Larger issues regarding higher defense management are also yet to be resolved. The question of creating a chief of Defence Staff or a permanent chief of the chiefs of staff committee — seen by many as some kind of a panacea for all ills besetting the system — continues to hang fire.

    As for modernization of the armed forces, developments since last summer have not improved either the pace of equipment acquisition or the procedure for such acquisitions. The sobriety of this important issue has been engulfed by the rhetoric on "Make in India." There is not much clarity on how this catchphrase is going to play out in defense.

    The Defence Acquisition Council has given in-principle approval for defense acquisitions, probably adding up to US $40 billion. But such approvals have been given in the past; the real challenge is to make sure the process that follows goes smoothly and the contracts are signed in time.

    The experts' committee set up by the Ministry of Defence to suggest measures for improving procurement policy and procedure submitted its report in July. While some incremental changes have been made in the foreign direct investment and the offset policy, the much-awaited simplified procurement procedure, including the new offset guidelines and the manner in which the development projects would be executed,is still awaited.

    The pragmatism shown by the government in scrapping the Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft program (MMRCA) negotiations and, instead, embarking on the government-to-government route for acquisition of not just the fighter aircraft but a variety of equipment from other countries, is fading because of the time it is taking to sign the final deals.

    The government has its task cut out for the coming months.

    This article was originally published in Defense News.