After all, not every day (or year) does the Prime Minister of the country come visiting laden with sweets and good wishes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised almost everyone by deciding to fly to the Siachen Glacier on Thursday before his scheduled and publicised-in-advance visit to Srinagar.
Siachen by far is the most inhospitable and difficult area to be deployed.
With altitudes ranging from 12- to 23,000 feet and temperatures dipping to 50 degrees below zero, this perpetually snow-bound glacier has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan ever since Indian troops captured the vital heights in April 1984 under Operation Meghdoot ( For details of that operation read excerpts from my book here: http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/LAND-FORCES/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=419).
Over 3000 soldiers are posted to guard the Saltoro ridge that divides Indian and Pakistani territories and gives India the edge since the Indian Army occupies all the strategic heights. The facilities on the glacier have improved way beyond the imagination of the pioneers who worked under most trying conditions (Here's a shameless plug: Please buy and read my book Beyond NJ 9842: The Siachen Saga to understand what Indian army and air force has achieved. Available here: http://www.amazon.in/Beyond-NJ-9842-Siachen-Saga/dp/9384052051/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1414147961&sr=8-1&keywords=Beyond+NJ+9842).
Yet, Siachen continues to remain the most difficult area to serve in. So it was a great morale booster for soldiers and airmen to have the Prime Minister spend time with them on Diwali day. Going by the Press note from the PMO, it is also clear that Mr Modi spoke of most issues that bother soldiers and reassured them in a way.
"The Prime Minister assured the jawans that wherever they are, and serving or retired, the country stands shoulder to shoulder with them. He said their dreams and responsibilities are the entire country`s responsibility. He said he would do his utmost to ensure a life of dignity for them. The Prime Minister said the promise of One Rank, One Pension had been fulfilled, and preparations were being made for a National War Memorial, that we could all be proud of," the press note at the end of the PM's visit said.
A big assurance from the Prime Minister himself on two major issues bothering serving and retired soldiers. One, they are not treated with dignity that soldiers deserve--which is largely a societal problem, rather than administrative. (Read:http://www.rediff.com/news/column/column-the-indian-solider-and-his-struggle-with-change/20131012.htm). He has promised to take steps to lend dignity to soldiering.
The second issue--granting One Rank One Pension (OROP), that is equal pension to all soldiers irrespective of their date and year of retirement--is more tangible and completely within the control of the government. So while one would like to believe the Prime Minister when he says OROP promise has been fulfilled, many veterans have complained that there is no sign of OROP being implemented. In view of these two totally contradictory views, the government needs to communicate clearly on what the exact status on this issue is.
Welfare of veterans is one major issue but the Prime Minister and his defence-cum-finance minister Arun Jaitley also need to take a call on reforming the country's higher defence management architecture at the earliest. Unless that is done, no amount of good intentions would bring in the much needed spring-cleaning in the obdurate and moribund defence ministry.
Much has been written and spoken about the non-existent synergy between civilian bureaucracy and the military but the latest salvo fired by former Navy Chief Adm DK Joshi, who resigned suddenly in February is worth pondering over. In an interview to me, Adm Joshi was scathing about the reality in the higher defence management structure.
He said: "The root cause is this dysfunctional and inefficient business model that we have, wherein professional competence, domain expertise, accountability, responsibility and authority, these all reside in separate silos in different locations. While professional competence, accountability, responsibility is with the service that is not the case with authority. And by authority I really mean the power to approve something, empowerment to approve something or the other. For example, change of submarine batteries, which are available indigenously or for commencing refits and repairs of ships, aircraft, submarines in Indian yards, the service does not have that empowerment. That's a broad construct as a background. Where there is authority there is no accountability. And where there is responsibility there is no authority.
"You don't have to accept this coming from me. For more than a decade now recognising fully that higher management of defence needs reforms, several expert committees have been formed. Virtually all their recommendations have been identical, but vested interests have ensured that the more substantive ones, which bring authority and accountability together, have not been approved. Some peripheral ones have been progressed but nothing substantive.
"You will be, for example, told listen we have created HQ IDS. But it's a headless wonder, its head was never appointed. I have been CISC, CINCAN tenure. I know it very well. Then they will tell you how the service HQs have been named as Integrated HQs, Ministry of Defence, but as the then Defence Secretary told the Standing Committee on Defence, the changes were mostly cosmetic as indeed they are."
The indictment of the structure that handles India's defence could not have been more severe. Adm Joshi, I must confess, was also unsparing about a section of the media for its motivated campaign against the navy but that's a different story which will have to wait for another time.
For the moment, suffice it to say only a drastic overhaul of the existing system in keeping with the Naresh Chandra Committee recommendations if not earlier reports, can rescue the Indian armed forces from their current state of despair and despondency.
Military bureaucracy in the South Block does speak about a changed atmosphere and approach to decision-making in the Defence Ministry. Service Chiefs, for instance, now meet the Prime Minister once a month, one-on-one in pre-scheduled appointments; the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), which finalizes all purchases, big and small, is slated to meet at least once a month from now on, we are told; civilian bureaucrats who ultimately place orders for weapons purchase and sanction funds for crucial projects are said to call up service headquarters asking for quicker delivery of files in sharp contrast to earlier practice. So things have certainly started happening, but only in small doses.
Like he did with diesel deregulation and labour reforms, the Prime Minister must take the system of defence management by the scruff of its neck and shake it down to get optimum results. There is no other alternative if he wants to see a strong India.
For, no amount of economic progress can make India a force to reckon with if it is not backed by a hard-edged, battle ready military. Therein lies Mr Modi's major challenge.