Fitting farewell to Antony
by Rohit Srivastava on 22 Feb 2014 6 Comments

DefExpo’14 (February 6-9) is over. For the last time, AK Antony, the longest serving Defence minister of India, addressed the Defence Expo. The response to the Expo was expected to be dull, but no one in his wildest imagination had expected it to be so dreary. The Ministry statistics in fact suggested a growth in the number of participating firms, which means the show should have been bigger than on previous occasions. But it turned out to be the most monotonous show ever, and died by the end of the second day itself. Numbers don’t represent the whole truth…


There were naturally no major announcements by private players or Government firms during the Expo. But the deserted roads and exhibition halls revealed a complete lack of participation from business visitors. How should India read this reaction of industry? Should we say that the golden era of the Indian defence market is over and world is no more ready to offer its best defence products to India, or should we see this as a product of global recession? Had this Expo been associated with consumer industry then every industry expert would have raised questions over the vitality of the market; this hasn’t happened, why? Is it because of the UPA Government is nearing its end and industry would prefer to talk to the new regime?


The truth behind the lacklustre response is the complex mix of the above. Defence is a distorted market, many manufacturers, but only one consumer – Government, which plays a very significant role in keeping the long-term interest of the global and local industry in the market intact. Government nurtures the relationship between local and global manufacturers. Defence industry requires significant Government involvement at every level and Government just can’t publish policies and procedures and let industry grow on its own, because military equipments are legitimately used by Governments. In ancient times, the State had its own foundries for artillery and swords. 


During the 2010 and 2012 editions of DefExpo, a number of MoUs were signed between Indian and foreign firms. There was energy, enthusiasm and hope. In last two years, the image of the Indian economy has suffered, especially in defence; global firms have become weary of last moment cancellations of programmes, delay in release of request for proposals, cancellation of Request for Information etc. Every two years, the Government has been changing procurement procedures, with the result that parallel programmes are running following different procedures! This procedural chaos has caused fatigue to both global and local firms.


AK Anthony is solely to blame for all these problems. Most procedures and policies have been created under his leadership and everyone is well aware about the political independence he enjoys due to proximity to the Congress’ first family. He failed to give confidence to industry with his actions of random and selective blacklisting. Blacklisted firms have demanded audience with the Ministry, a legitimate request which has been denied. If issues of such national importance are being dealt with without being sensitive to the long-term national interest, then what else is required to prove the utter disdain for national interest?


Antony has failed completely in giving the national security apparatus the direction it needs to deal with the new emerging military challenges. At every step, the Government has created suspicion among the rank and file. No two military establishments are ready to deal with each other openly and confidently. In the last five years, one has lost the count of the controversies that erupted in the Ministry of Defence, and in each and every case there were no concrete results, only politically correct statements. Antony has mastered the art of repeating his old platitudes and giving false assurances. His tenure is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with UPA-II.


The industry is not happy. There are numerous cases of serious indiscipline in the armed forces; tussles between Generals have damaged the trust and faith between Generals and subordinates; public sectors bodies like DRDO and HAL have many issues with the Forces and the policies; the list of issues is endless. These are some of the problems Antony will bequeath to the next Government. The next Defence Minister will have to deal with a completely rudderless Defence Ministry. God knows how long it will take to set things right.


What is AK Antony’s legacy in the Ministry and with industry? Every institution, be it the armed forces, DPSUs, DRDO have issues which did not get resolved. This is possibly true with every Ministry, but in Defence, most the problems emerged under his watch. Every step that the Defence Ministry took in the past five years is at best a half measure which has only created ambiguity and confusion.


Take the small example of offset and defence license. In the case of Offset, the objective itself is not clear and the offset management agency DOMW is simply a white elephant. For more than a year, DOFA didn’t even update its website. Similarly, small and medium industries don’t know who is required to get a defence license! The point being made is that these are small issues that could have been resolved long ago.


Many major industrial houses are no longer interested in the defence business. Every policy has been self-defeating. AK Anthony marketed his honesty and personal integrity and raised expectation, but could prove himself as an efficient and competent minister who could equip the armed forces with the weaponry they needed while curbing corruption in defence deals.


The deadening response at the DefExo is a fitting reply to his inefficient and unmotivating tenure. He should bow out with a sense of shame. The next Government will have to do the work of two Governments to bring the ministry and industry back on track.

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