And yet, if there is one lesson we should have learnt during our 67 years as a sovereign republic, it is that security shortcomings, both internal and external, have repeatedly served to distract our attention and divert scarce resources away from the pursuit of development. The history of India's post-independence conflicts has conclusively proved that the "guns vs butter" debate is futile. Development can take place only in a secure environment, and we must have both guns and butter.
The hawks amongst us loudly bemoan the steady decline in India's defence expenditure, which has hit a low of 1.74 percent of the GDP. The common man, on the other hand, wants to know whether the Rs. 224,000 crore ($38 billion) recently voted for defence is being spent wisely enough to buy us the security we need. He asks: are India's core national interests being safeguarded; are our borders and territories inviolate; and are our citizens protected from the threat of terror-strikes? These are all valid questions, given China's increasingly aggressive attitude and Pakistan's relentless use of cross-border terrorism as a low cost weapon.
The term heard most commonly in India's national security discourse is "surprise". It is used in the context of the 1947, 1962, 1965 and Kargil conflicts, as well as episodes such as the IC-814 hijacking and the 26/11 Mumbai terror strike and denotes repeated intelligence failures. A closely related phrase, heard only in whispers, is "lack of preparedness" of the armed forces. Public memory being short, we have forgotten many of our past blunders.
For example, in the bitter winter of 1962 we sent our troops to fight the Chinese clad in summer uniforms and armed with WW-I bolt-action rifles. The Bangladesh war was won only because General Manekshaw had the courage to seek a grace period of nine months to equip his troops. While celebrating Kargil Vijay Divas we forget the army chief's 1999 lament: "We will fight with whatever weapons we have." But to continue ignoring dire warnings that emanate from South Block about the military's current lack of combat-readiness would be folly of the highest order.
A reality check will show the new government that the reassurance we derive from our large conventional forces and expensive nuclear arsenal is chimerical; for two reasons. First; the languid and wayward functioning of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has, over the past decade, served to erode the qualitative and/or quantitative edge that the armed forces had over potential adversaries. Second, successive governments having refused to integrate the Service HQs with the MoD and to engender jointness amongst the three armed forces, our national security structure is not only flawed but badly outdated and likely to fail in the face of 21st century threats.
So far, India's political leadership, in an unfortunate display of indifference, has distanced itself from national security issues. At the same time, the armed forces have been deliberately excluded from a role in national security decision-making. The net result is a conundrum in which, India has collected, at huge expense, the trappings of a major military power without having a real idea of how to leverage this in the national interest. Further evidence of strategic naiveté is to be found in the adoption of a model - unique amongst democracies - in which the armed forces are placed under the total control of a civilian bureaucracy, with limited comprehension of recondite defence and security matters; especially those related to weapon-acquisition programmes.
As PM Modi contemplates the nomination of a suitable person to assume the crucial post of Raksha Mantri (RM), he must also charge him with the conception of a national security vision, spanning - not just the customary 100 days but - a decade or two. Instead of looking at superficial symptoms, the vision should address the root of the malaise afflicting India's national security.
The RM's first priority must be to eliminate the paranoid suspicion of our patriotic and apolitical armed forces; a lingering Nehruvian legacy which has kept them outside the edifice of the Government of India (GoI). This would logically lead to the next important step of integrating the Service HQs with MoD and constituting a Chief of Defence Staff. This vital step, recommended by successive Standing Parliamentary Committees on Defence, as well as by government-constituted Task Forces, has remained stalled by lack of political will and bureaucratic resistance.
Concurrent with these measures, a review of the "1961 GoI Rules of Business" must be undertaken in order that the three service chiefs are nominated as functionaries of the GoI; responsible to the PM/RM for the defence of India's land, maritime and aerospace domains. The last but most important action-point for the RM would be the restructuring of our ineffective defence research and production organizations to lay, at long last, the foundations of a dynamic indigenous arms industry. These measures, while reinforcing political control of the armed forces, will bring our higher defence structures on a par with other major democracies and ensure that the defence budget translates into genuine security.
Lastly, one hopes that the new RM will have the stature and self-confidence to venture on an examination of the internal health of our armed forces. Events of the recent past, including misdemeanours at senior ranks, episodes of mass indiscipline and occurrence of serial mishaps have raised concerns amongst the public. Given synergy between the RM and the service chiefs, it should be possible to identify the systemic flaws that have crept into our military and to institute enduring solutions.