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.

India Today - - INSIDE - By San­deep Un­nithan

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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.

Pho­to­graph Pho­to­graph by by CHAN­DRADEEP KU­MAR

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