When General Sundarajan Padmanabhan took over as the Indian army's 20th chief on October 1 last, he promptly decided to rearrange his room in South Block. He shifted the glasstop table from the "dismal, dark corner" towards the French windows. "I want to see the light, it will help me," he said.
The remark is symbolic of the air of glasnost that's now palpable at the army headquarters. This serenity of aspect couldn't have come at a more opportune moment. Post-Kargil, the army had been weighed down with a feeling of having borne too many wounds—and, instead of recompense, subsequent events were only seen to have stretched the esprit de corps. Though admittedly not the official version, at least one defence analyst had noted that Padmanabhan's main task would be to boost the sagging morale of jawans and junior officers.
Indeed, foremost on the chief's stated agenda is to restore "the izzat (honour) of the jawan". Rejuvenating the confidence and trust of the young and middle-rung officers as also the rank and file of the army, especially after the Kargil war, will be a litmus test for the new chief. For, there had been a growing feeling among them that their contributions during the Kargil war went unrecognised and, what's more, that some of them were even victimised to mask the lapses of their seniors.
Many look to Gen Padmanabhan to provide the healing touch and clear the air of the vestiges of embittered feelings. "Knowing him to be a fair officer, he will see to it that there is no victimisation," says a former colleague at the Udhampur-based Northern Command. An officer who served under him at 15 Corps in Srinagar points out that Padmanabhan is a thorough professional who means business. Sobriety, mixed with a fair dose of clear-eyed pragmatism, is just what the army needs.
The first positive sign came soon after the new chief took over. The controversial Kargil commander, Brig Surinder Singh (served with a showcause notice of termination of service), had sought a meeting. Padmanabhan's predecessor had all along refused to meet him. But, according to a senior army official, the new chief not only met the much harassed brigadier, but also assured him that justice would be done. "In fact, the chief told Brig Singh that in his 41-year-long career, he had never been unfair to any individual," says the official.
Perhaps, the difference with Gen Padmanabhan is that unlike many army generals in the early '80s who led largely secluded lives, he has earned his stars in a climate which called for greater rapport with the political class, babudom, intelligence agencies and the media. "This has helped him hone his professional experience as well as be receptive to ideas," says a former colleague.
The fact that he has to carry his men along with him and that their interests cannot be ignored is like a truism come alive for the new general. Besides, he has also inherited a host of vital organisational problems of less recent vintage. For one, there is the problem of a shortfall of officers. Currently, the army is short by over 12,000 officers (26.5 per cent of the total strength). Five years back, this figure had dipped to an alarming 32 per cent.
"Yes, there is a shortage of officers. There is no question about it," admits Padmanabhan. "But considering most armies in the world carry out operations with a deficiency of 10 to 15 per cent, there is no grave crisis." Some priority moves are also afoot to plug the gap. "We are taking many steps such as reducing the period in the Indian Military Academy (ima) by a year and increasing seats in the Officers' Training Academy (ota) and the National Defence Academy (nda) to fill up the vacuum," says the chief.
To a large extent, the initiatives which Gen Padmanabhan (or Paddy as he is popularly known) will undertake during his tenure will hinge on the recommendations of the four working groups on border management, internal security, intelligence revamp and defence reorganisation which were set up after Kargil. The groups have submitted their recommendations to the government, and it may not be long before these changes are set into motion.
Among the recommendations are "right incentives" to short-service commissioned officers who tend to opt out after their eight-year tenure instead of seeking the alternative of getting recommissioned. These, it is believed, will enable the army to dissuade them from leaving when they have years of potential active service ahead of them. This could help plug the shortfall in junior officers.
The lessons from Kargil, the continuing proxy war in Kashmir and the low-intensity conflict in the Northeast have also opened up the army's eyes to the potential use of information technology (IT) in electronic warfare. There is a growing realisation that the Indian army has to update itself so as not to be left behind in this form of warfare.
"The modern age demands that IT-literate chaps will be required to handle the weapons we are getting. One thing I have been constantly trying for the past two to three years is getting the army into the information age," says Padmanabhan. A computer literacy drive has already been launched; reconnaissance drones and satellites and modern electronic warfare (EW) equipment are likely to be inducted shortly.
In addition, the pressures of the covert war in Jammu and Kashmir has put a high premium on modern Electronic Intelligence (eint) and manpower management in intelligence operations. The aim is to see that technology is used as a force multiplier to reduce troop deployment and increase efficiency. According to senior officers, to achieve results on this front, the ministry of defence will have to act on a priority basis on the task force recommendations on these scores.
While maintaining that the army is fairly organised in technical intelligence, Gen Padmanabhan is candid enough to admit that "human intelligence, its methodology and organisation" need to be improved upon. Not waiting for the implementation of the task force recommendations, an in-house group has been analysing every aspect of military intelligence. "We are also looking into our satellite imagery and the question of why we do not have high-resolution pictures," says the chief. In short, areas where the army was found lacking during the Kargil war are being addressed.
That considerable priority is being given to intelligence is certain. Says Padmanabhan: "When we were in the Northern Command, we felt there was a need to have a kind of slightly modified intelligence outfit, instead of depending on just one monolith (Military Intelligence)." According to him, such a set-up was in place at Udhampur and was functioning well.
Other than updating intelligence structures, firming up surveillance and weapon upgradation are also on the chief's agenda. Inducting new weaponry such as T-90 tanks, medium-range guns and weapon-locating radars are in the offing and these, in turn, will add to the strengths of the army. "At the end of it all, we are interested in strengthening our operational capability," says the chief.
There is one more salutary signal—and that is the general's clear stance on India's as-yet vaguely enunciated nuclear line. Though India is a de facto nuclear state, Padmanabhan has put it on record that nuclear weapons cannot be used for warfare. He doesn't believe, as one school of thought does, that the army establishment's priority should be to prepare India's forces for an eventual nuclear strike.
As for the ground situation along the Kargil sector, Padmanabhan is realistic—he is not comfortable with the high costs entailed in continuous deployment, but does not want to cut down on it till the situation warrants it. As of now, there will be no abandoning of positions in the forward areas. "As far as Pakistan is concerned, they inflicted Kargil on us and are still sitting out there." In other words, the Indian army cannot be complacent.
Under Gen Padmanabhan, finally, a glasnost has been promised. But it's still early. He's yet to be tested, in this position of authority, in a crisis situation. What has to be seen is how he faces up to eventualities—whether he's sucked in by the inertia of the system or rises above it to transform the army into a modern fighting machine.