Whether by coincidence or design, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two most recent speeches — first on the National Panchayat Day and the second, the TV address yesterday which, incidentally, was the third one on the coronavirus crisis and the first in terms of promising a comprehensive economic package, had a common theme. It was self-reliance. “The global contagion has …taught us”, he said April 24, “a very important lesson; that we have to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. It has taught us that we should not look for solutions outside the country” and added that the fact that “we should not depend on others for fulfilling our needs is centuries old…”
Sure, he then veered off, as the occasion demanded, into suggesting that villages should become self-sufficient in their needs raising, in the process, the Luddite nightmare that Mahatma Gandhi — who had strange ideas and did even stranger things — had conjured up when he talked of India as a collection of “village republics”!!
In his last public address , there was considerable confusion — which is increasingly the hallmark of the PM’s public utterances. His khichdi speech mixed self-reliance with global welfare and with India making a place for itself in “the global supply chain” before turning 180 degrees and urging the strengthening of “the local supply chain” and the Indian people needing to trust and buy Indian products as a first step towards making them “global brands”. Modi concluded by saying that “Self-reliance leads to happiness, satisfaction and empowerment” and how “Our responsibility to make the 21st century, the century of India will be fulfilled by the pledge of self-reliant India.” He ended with an exhortation: “Now we have to move forward with a new resolve and determination. When ethics are filled with duty, the culmination of diligence, the capital of skills, then who can stop India from becoming self-reliant?”
Who, indeed, unless it is the government itself.
Coroniavirus vaccine is fine. Supply-chain aspirations are good. It is a pity though Modi did not in his speeches once touch on the one sphere, that of armaments where India absolutely has to become self-reliant to maintain its sovereignty which has been sliced away over the last 60-odd years due to the military’s relentless hardware buys from abroad for which the politicians, bureaucrats, DPSUs and Ordnance factories and the armed services’ brass are almost equally to blame. It is a vicious circle any of the numerous PMs in power could have broken, but did not.
So, Indian politicians’ blathering on and on about self- reliance is a bit rich and counter-pointed most glaringly in the country’s almost total, abject and shameful dependence on foreign armaments. This last, moreover, is at the cost of indigenous effort, talent, and capability richly available if the government only looks for it outside the waste and corruption-ridden defence public sector units (DPSUs) and Ordnance factories. To put these latter wretched, money guzzling, government-owned defence ministry-run agencies, maintaining whose health at whatever cost is the defence production department’s sole remit, in-charge of the task to achieve arms self-sufficiency is to take the axe to national interest. It is to put a partially blind man at the steering wheel of a bus and expect he will take us to the destination, when the surprise will be if India gets to the gate without mishap.
After almost surrendering the telecommunications future to the PLA outfit, Huawei, and China, the government, prompted by organizations such as SITARA (Science, Indigenous Technology & Advanced Research Accelerator), is finally permitting Indian private sector high-tech achievers to enter the field of 5G and potentially even 6G systems. SITARA is headed by an unusual former Indian diplomat, Smita Pushottam; unusual because the Indian Foreign Service usually breeds foreign arms lovers. Similar telecom sector type thrust will have to be given by the Modi regime in defence, aerospace, and electronics sectors generally, lest national security continue to be willfully compromised. There is more than critical mass of Indian companies with skills and competences in these fields to free the country from the “commissions and considerations in kind”- racket within the portals of government that lubricates the present procurement system.
The danger though is that Modi, who is his own and only adviser, will decide to buy antiquated fighters (F-16-F-21) and such and compel Indian industry to produce this trash item just so his ‘Make in India’ programme is not seen as an out and out fiasco.
The only consolation is the treasury will be emptied out with 10% of the GDP or Rs 20 lakh crore ($260 billion) staked by Modi to revive a moribund economy, with industrial output down by 16.7% and sliding downwards, and an annual growth rate estimated at best to be no more than 1%-2% this year and at the worst decline to negative growth in this fiscal.
In the event, now may be the time, if he is really serious about self-reliance, for Modi to announce an end to all purchase of armaments, and aerospace systems and sub-systems, and high-value electronics components, as I have been advocating, and for his government to stop dilly-dallying [detailed in my 2015 book Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)] and put up the money for establishing a high value microchip fabrication facility to drive the technology sector. It will mean, by way of a beginning, the long overdue dismantling of the extant procurement processes and systems in the defence ministry and the departments of Space and of Electronics.
We may do well to recall as a cautionary tale the country’s sorry condition in the electronics field being the result of the historic blunder committed by the late MGK Menon-led electronics commission in the 1970s, which advised the Indian government to concentrate on developing software capability while ignoring development in-country of computer hardware capability. It allowed companies like TCS, Infosys, et al to grow and prosper, of course, and all to the good, but did not help India become comprehensively independent in high-technology. Whence the awful state the country is in with Huawei and China lording over us in the telecom sphere, as does every half-way industrialized state supplying India where armaments are concerned.
In the defence arena the indigenous capabilities that produced the Tejas LCA, the nuclear-powered submarine, and the Arjun MBT as the principal technology programmes can be enabled to seed design-to-delivery projects for future advanced manned and unmanned combat aircraft, conventional diesel submarines, and various infantry combat vehicles, including a light tank derivative (for Tibetan plateau use) for the mountain corps, for instance. This is the time for Modi to take such disruptive measures and bring the armed services forcefully in line and ensure the success of his government’s “atm nirbharta” policy.
But, as I conclude in my latest book — ‘Staggering Forward’ Modi may not be the leader to take hard decisions to realize technological autonomy because, among other reasons, he is too besotted by the US and the West to not sustain the entrenched import culture inside the government which benefits them, his rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding.