Millennium Post

Defence preparedness & Cong's betrayal

Decades have witnessed laxity on part of Congress in strengthening India’s Defence capabilities

"With him, India lost firmness", wrote N.V.Gadgil (1896-1966), Public Works and Mines minister in free India's first cabinet wrote, on Sardar Patel's passing away. It was that loss of firmness that saw India abdicate her march towards self-reliance - economic, industrial and defence and take recourse to an amorphous philosophy of world fraternity which stood on a shallow foundation and was inspired by a rather naïve understanding of the complexities of global politics.

It was this same lack of firmness and naïve conviction that led to the neglect of our strategic and defence interests. It was the same attitude that led to Nehru dithering on Kashmir, to his refusing the offer of a permanent seat at the UNSC, to his refusal to ask the Portuguese to vacate Goa and to support the indigenous defence industry. It was that loss of firmness which gradually saw India recede into the background and come across as a preachy but weak power on the global stage.

Gadgil notes how "our border defences were neglected because of the firm conviction of Nehru that since we had no quarrel with anyone, no one would attack us." In his memoirs, Gadgil wrote, how when the Cabinet first discussed planning, he had suggested that "our defence needs too should also be considered part of it." Nehru "did not approve of the idea." Attempts sometime later for defence procurement were stymied by the Jeep scandal and the overall progress for defence procurement and production, as Gadgil noted, "was tardy and unsatisfactory."

On the attempts in the Nehru years to lay a solid foundation for India's defence preparedness and production, Gadgil's words provide a clear insight into the mindset that plagued the approach to this most crucial sector of Independent India. "The progress in the production for defence purposes", wrote Gadgil "has not been satisfactory. Whatever we purchased in the world market was insufficient and inadequate. It has to be acknowledged that those who were put in charge of this programme were not competent. Several crores of rupees were wasted. Attempts were made to build factories for the production of defence material but controversies regarding which sector, public or private, should be given the job has hampered its progress. As a result, both the quality and quantity of defence production has lagged far behind the national needs. Chinese aggression has thoroughly exposed our weakness in this respect."

Interestingly, when asked once about potential aggressors, Nehru had asserted that "the nation had the spirit to defend itself by lathis and stones if need be" and "therefore I am not afraid of anybody invading India from any quarter." In fact, Nehru had also once ludicrously argued that "the proper way to consider defence is to begin to forget the military aspect. Defence is considered far much in military terms"!

Nehru's defence minister Krishna Menon was busy hectoring the world on the merits of socialism, communism and non-alignment, and displaying his disdain for our men in uniform while Nehru turned a blind eye to our crying defence needs. "The point I want to make is that the country has to be defended as much through economic policy and action as through military policy and action and in both India failed to show requisite firmness", Gadgil argued.

Krishna Menon earned a reputation as a leader who had no vision of India's defence preparedness. In fact, Menon's behaviour demotivated the forces, with the officers feeling insulted at his brazenness. So much so, that the matter was referred to President Rajendra Prasad himself by then Air Marshal Subroto Mukherjee. In a letter to one of his confidante, Prasad wrote, "He [Air Marshal] wanted to speak to me without reserve and give out what they all felt in the Defence forces. There was much discontentment against the Defence Minister and it would be difficult for them to carry on…I asked him what was it that they resented so much. He said it is difficult to point out any particular act or incident, but his general behaviour and in particular his dealings with individual senior officers in the presence of their subordinates, even foreigners on some occasion, rendered it difficult for them to maintain their self-respect…A particular incident may be trivial but the accumulated effect of many incidents in the case of each one of them was very great indeed and they felt it would be difficult for them to work…". Nehru, of course, knew of these sentiments but refused to reign in Menon.

The Defence Committee of the Cabinet, which had been formed around September 1947 and consisted of ministers of defence, finance and home affairs and ministers whom the Prime Minister invited, used to regularly meet till about 1953 when the Prime Minister took over the defence portfolio. From that time onwards, according to observers, the Committee seems to have fallen "into disuse as a means of mutual consultations between these Ministers." After Krishna Menon took over as defence minister, 'foreign and defence policies" were primarily decided by Nehru and Menon. While great ideas were discussed and hurled on the world stage by the duo, the basics of India's defence and her strategic requirements were neglected.

Gadgil's colleague in the cabinet, and one who often crossed swords with Nehru on policies and political positions was Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee. Participating in what was perhaps one of the first debates on India's foreign policy and the international situation in the Indian Parliament – then the interim Parliament – on 6 December 1950, Dr Mookerjee castigated this strange attitude towards India's defence preparedness that Nehru exuded and called for a strong and organised approach towards it.

Mookerjee's observations were prescient, his remedy clear, "I was rather perturbed the other day", he said, "when the Prime Minister excitedly answered a question put by a Member and said that he was reducing defence expenditure…If reduction in defence expenditure means a weakening of the military position of India, I say, that the Government of India will be doing the greatest possible disservice to India as a whole. Today two things are vitally necessary. We have to strengthen our military position and if we cannot do it alone, we shall have to do it in collaboration with others with whom we can stand on a common platform…Then, we shall have to strengthen internal strength and peace, and satisfactorily solve the economic problem, as much as we can by our own efforts, as with the help of others so that we can create that solidarity and stability which would be impregnable both from the national and international standpoints…"

Over the years, the approach to India's defence preparedness taken by Nehru's political descendants and heirs further degenerated. They spawned a large network of middlemen and saw in it an opportunity to enrich themselves. When acquisitions and defence deals did not suit their personal demands and bids, they stalled these. It did not matter to them if India's defence needs suffered, if her national security needs were compromised or if her soldiers faced tough conditions.

While Syama Prasad Mookerjee's political heirs have striven since 2014 to strengthen India's national security and defence and to make it, as Mookerjee had said, "impregnable both from the national and international standpoints…", Nehru's heirs have tried their best to heap calumny on our forces and to prevent acquisition that will ensure a giant leap for India's defence capabilities. It is clear that they serve themselves and not India.

(The author is Director, Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi. Views expressed are strictly personal)

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