The Worst Defence Minister Ever
A.K Antony missed an opportunity to transform the armed forces in an era of peace. His tenure, the longest for a defence minister, has seen scams, crises, unpreparedness.
Pending military deals, unhappy chiefs and a series of scams in A.K Antony’s tenure have sent the Ministry of Defence lurching from one crisis to another.
Two years ago, an outraged vice-admiral strode into Defence Minister A.K. Antony’s wood-panelled office on the first floor of South Block. He wanted to know why Antony had signed on a policy that would exclude submariners and aviators from holding the top job in the Navy. It would make submariners and aviators second-class citizens and destroy recruitment, he warned. Antony, the vice-admiral recalls, held his head in his hands and sank into his chair. He later struck the policy down. But he had exposed his embarrassing cluelessness at what he had almost allowed.
As the UPA slips into the twilight of a decade-long tenure, its lead actors examine legacies and worry how historians will judge them. None, with the possible exception of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, will leave a legacy as bitterly questioned as Defence Minister A.K. Antony.
DISCONTENT AT THE TOP
Under Antony’s seven-and-a-half-year tenure, the longest for an Indian defence minister, the Ministry of Defence ( MoD) has lurched from one crisis to another. The most visible have been the controversies over the service chiefs. General V.K. Singh, who took the Government to the Supreme Court in 2012; former air chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi, who was chargesheeted by CBI in 2013 for accepting bribes; and Navy chief Admiral D.K. Joshi, who quit in ignominy after a spate of warship accidents, beginning with the August 14, 2013 destruction of a submarine as well as deaths of 18 of its crew, and the February 26 fire onboard another sub-
marine that killed two officers.
“This is a record of infamy which the UPA and the defence minister will carry as a burden for as long as their sensibilities are able to recognise what great wrong they have done to India,” says former BJP defence minister Jaswant Singh. His party renewed calls for Antony’s resignation after the Navy chief quit on February 26.
The February 17 decision to award nearly 2.5 million retired servicemen ‘one rank, one pension’— for which Antony claimed credit—has come after seven years of such bitter rancour, with veterans handing in their medals, that it is unlikely to benefit UPA in the forthcoming General Elections.
“Antony is an honest but soft and indecisive minister, exceedingly misguided by lower-level functionaries of the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare ( DESW). His tenure also saw the filing of appeals by the Ministry of Defence in the Supreme Court against grant of benefits to disabled soldiers, all approved by him on file,” says Major Navdeep Singh, advocate, Punjab and Haryana High Court.
The divide between the 1.4 million men in uniform and the civilians who run the defence ministry has never been greater. Antony outmanoeuvred those who advocated defence reforms to promote synergy in civil-military functioning by setting up the Naresh Chandra Committee in 2011. “He reiterated the old line of permanent chairman, chiefs of staff, requiring political consensus but has not convened even one all-party meeting in seven years to push for it,” says Anit Mukherjee, a military analyst with the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
SLOWDOWN IN DECISION-MAKING
In his memoirs Duty, former US defence secretary Robert Gates notes the greatest challenge faced by a secretary of defence is the crushing impact of “dealing with multiple problems daily, pivoting on a dime every few minutes from one issue to another… and then making decisions, always with too little time and too much ambiguous information”.
Under Antony, decision-making in the ministry has slowed to a crawl. It has had catastrophic consequences for
defence preparedness, with India’s military machine—still equipped with tanks, fighter jets and warships acquired mostly in the 1980s—in limbo. Howitzers have not been bought since 1987, new submarines have been delayed by over five years and fighter jet proposals are pending since 1999. The $100-billion list of pending military requirements may take over a decade to be met. This is why Rear Admiral (retired) K. Raja Menon calls Antony the “worst defence minister ever”.
Crucial reforms such as the appointment of a chief of defence staff (now watered down to a permanent chairman chiefs of staff committee) to enable the services to pool resources and fight jointly as well as proposals to give the private sector a level-playing field with the public sector in defence production, have been shelved. “Nobody has anything bad to say about Antony the person,” says Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar, “but he simply lacks the connect at the policy and the strategic level”. Antony’s lack of vision, his inability to see over the horizon, to demand accountability and insist on deadlines stands in sharp contrast to that of his predecessors.
George Fernandes, during his tenure in NDA between 1998 and 2004, and Pranab Mukherjee from 2004 to 2006, ran the ministry on a tight leash and delicately balanced civil-military relations. Fernandes posted his bureaucrats to Siachen. An official recalls how a bureaucrat collapsed after a verbal barrage from Mukherjee. Antony’s re-
“This is a record of infamy which the UPA and the defence minister will carry as a burden for as long as their sensibilities are able to recognise what great wrong they have done to India.”
JASWANT SINGH, Former defence minister “Nobody has anything bad to say about Antony. But he simply lacks the connect at the policy and the strategic level.”
RAJEEV CHANDRASEKHAR, Rajya Sabha MP
liance on the bureaucracy has rankled the military. A crucial file for dredging the sensitive Mumbai harbour was held up for four years. It resulted in the grounding of one submarine, INS Sindhughosh, in January this year. Nobody was punished for the delay.
Defence officials deny this charge and credit Antony with undertaking the largest-ever expansion of the armed forces—adding 28 ships in seven years, inducting two nuclear submarines, okaying a Rs 65,000-crore Mountain Strike Corps comprising 40,000 soldiers along the disputed border with China; inducting C-17 strategic airlift aircraft and basic trainers for the air force. Officials blame the forces for procurement delays. “Army was given two chances in seven years to buy 197 light helicopters, they deviated from procedures both times. We simply cannot clear it,” an MoD official says.
THE SCAM STAIN
Less than a week after the scandal caused by the navy chief’s resignation, a new scam hit South Block. On March 2, the defence ministry announced it was handing over complaints of bribery in the procurement of Rolls-Royce engines by the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, to the CBI. The armed forces braced for the impact of
another scandal on its military preparedness: Rolls-Royce engines power over 100 fighter, transport and trainer aircraft in the Army and Navy.
The blow of defence scandals has often landed on the ruling government. Antony’s real mandate was to prevent these scandals from doing a Bofors on UPA. His defenders like to say that “behind his unassuming demeanour is an uncompromising value system which comes down heavily when irregularities are detected in defence deals”. But Antony’s zero tolerance for corruption has not prevented a string of corrupt defence deals. In January, the ministry terminated a $556.26-million deal for 12 VVIP helicopters from AgustaWestland. The scandal followed allegations of bribery in the purchases of Tatra trucks and irregularities in the purchases of light utility helicopters.
HOLLOW INDIGENOUS CAPABILITY
Antony’s socialist leanings, his refusal to reform the defence Public Sector Undertakings ( PSUS) and suspicion of the private sector, may be the root cause of the failure of indigenous de- fence capability to meet India’s requirements. India’s gigantic but creaky military-industrial complex, a network of 39 ordnance factories, three defence shipyards, eight defence PSUs and 52 DRDO laboratories has been unable to produce new hardware, leaving the services importing 60 per cent of their military needs from abroad. “When Antony took over, India was the sixth largest importer of arms and China was the largest arms importer,” says a private sector CEO who does not want to be named. “In less than a decade, India has become the world’s largest arms importer and China has become the world’s fifth largest arms exporter.”
Deeply aware of his shortcomings, Antony recently indicated he would not like to continue as defence minister after the UPA’s term ends. It may have been the closest he may have come to admitting that, perhaps, he may not have been the right man for the job.