India's Obsessive Spending on Defence

Published: April 20, 2015 17:12 IST
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(Phiroze Vasunia is Professor of Greek at University College London and the author, most recently, of  'The Classics and Colonial India' (Oxford, 2013).

Arms manufacturers of the world, rejoice. The government of India is your loyal friend. Not just this government, but the previous government too - the UPA as well as the NDA.

According to a study conducted by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India topped the list of weapons importers and accounted for some 15 per cent of worldwide arms imports from 2010 to 2014. Five of the 10 biggest arms importers in this period were in Asia, including China (5%), Pakistan (4%), South Korea 3%), and Singapore (3%). Imports are only part of the picture of the global arms industry, of course, and the countries that had the highest levels of military expenditure in 2014 were the USA, China, and Russia. India was placed seventh on that list, with spending at $50 billion or 2.4 per cent of GDP, an increase of 39% between 2005 and 2014.

Signs of the government's thirst for arms acquisitions were evident when Narendra Modi declared during his visit to France that India would purchase a number of Rafaele jets for roughly $4.3 billion. On the heels of that development came the disclosure that the US Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carter, would be flying in to New Delhi in May to close the sale of Apache and Chinook helicopters, worth some $2.5 billion. The figures are staggering, though not by the standards of military expenditure, and there will be other such announcements in the months and years ahead since India cannot manufacture the weapons that its leaders insist upon.

The current government wants to cut defence imports, but not reduce military spending. The Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, announced in his budget speech that defence spending would actually increase by 11% to Rs. 246,727 crore in 2015-2016.  The defence share accounts for almost 14% per cent of the overall central government budget for the year 2015-16. With so much to play for, it's no wonder that Anil Ambani said in March that he wanted to make Pipavav Defence and Offshore Engineering the nation's largest defence manufacturer. "This is a unique opportunity for Reliance Group to participate in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 'Make in India' programme for the high growth defence sector," he added, just in case the message had not come through. You may think of the military-industrial complex as an embarrassment, but for business tycoons it's an "opportunity" to embrace openly.

The question is: should India devote such a large part of its budget to the military? The issue is not only financial, but moral and political. While spending on defence increased, the budgetary allocation for health was reduced by 5.7 per cent to Rs 33,152 crore. Would the money given to defence not be better spent on the development of public healthcare, education, affordable housing, and infrastructure projects? What's surprising is how little discussion there appears to be in the national media about these levels of defence spending. In fact, you're far more likely to read editorials claiming that the Indian army needs to spend crores on "modernization" and newer technology than articles arguing for a reduction of the military budget.  Modern hardware adds to the spectacle on Republic Day in front of guests such as Barack Obama (who presides over a country that has by far the largest military budget in the world), but perhaps it's time to set aside these archaic displays of military might and ask whether it's necessary to spend so lavishly on machines of death in the first place.

Increased levels of military spending have not made India a safer place to live. The greater the levels of militarization in the region, the more likely it is that countries will go to war with each other, as countless experts have pointed out. The more habitually the armed services are pressed into service within India's boundaries, the more often will they take the lives of Indian citizens. We do not need a government that is going to invade or bomb another country. Nor do I think we have one. What we need is a government that tries to engage in constructive dialogue with others, builds up links through political and cultural diplomacy, understands the reasons for dissent within India, and seeks to learn why people remain unequal and in poverty. You cannot bomb into submission Pakistan, China, Sri Lanka, Kashmiri insurgents, terrorists, and Maoists.

North America and western Europe are in no position to offer lessons to others on the subject of military spending, but defence spending actually fell in 2014 in these parts of the world. Italy cut its defence budget by 27% between 2005 and 2014, France by 3.2%. Even in the USA, military spending has decreased annually since 2011. In the UK, where a national election is scheduled to be held in early May, some political parties have openly called for an end to the continuous nuclear deterrent known as Trident, and the subject is fiercely debated in the public sphere. Both the incumbent, David Cameron, and the leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, say they are committed to Trident, the replacement of which is likely to cost 15 billion pounds to 20 billion pounds and which the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament refers to as "immoral, potentially genocidal and strategically irrelevant". Yet, it is interesting that the UK figure of military spending in 2014 is a reduction of 5.5% in the period from 2005. Also significant is that both the Conservatives and Labour give evasive answers when they are pressed about the cuts they will make to the military after the election: their evasiveness on the issue means that cuts in defence spending are certain. It is almost assured that regardless of which party or coalition of parties comes into power after the election, Britain will not meet NATO's guidelines and will not commit to spending 2% or more on defence.

In the late fourth or early fifth century, Vegetius, a functionary in the Roman imperial bureaucracy, composed a treatise in Latin on military matters that became widely influential in the European Middle Ages and the Renaissance. His most famous sentiment, and the one that is quoted more often than anything else he wrote, is that those who want peace should prepare for war. The phrase is popularly rendered as "If you want peace, prepare for war" (si vis pacem, para bellum), and versions of this have been adapted as a slogan by military outfits all around the world from the Royal Navy, to battalions in the US Marine Corps, to training schools in South Africa. Yet, in its context, the statement by Vegetius reads more as a justification for his work than an exhortation to strategists and generals.

In relation to India and Pakistan, economists who seek an opening up of trading relations have reformulated Vegetius' phrase to say: "If you want peace, prepare for trade."  

How about the following? If you want peace, prepare for peace.

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