Defence Reforms: The Vajpayee years


Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

Editor's note:

This chapter is a part of an IDSA book – ‘Defence Reforms: A National Imperative’ – edited by Gurmeet Kanwal and Neha Kohli. Brookings India is an independent, non-partisan public policy research organisation based in New Delhi. The views are of the author(s).

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s coalition government was at the helm of affairs from 1998 to 2004 and significantly shaped India’s defence policies. Some of this was by design, such as the nuclear tests in 1998 which allowed India to come out of the secrecy closet and led to its subsequent accommodation within the existing nuclear order, signified by the 2005

US-India Nuclear deal. Even before the tests, the government also appointed the K.C. Pant Committee to recommend a national security management system for India. These steps eventually led to the creation of the National Security Council (NSC), Strategic Policy Group (SPG) and the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB). In all these activities (from nuclear testing to creating national security structures), Brajesh Mishra, the principal secretary to the Prime Minister, played a key role.1 However the most significant development was the 1999 Kargil War, which was forced on India and revealed many weaknesses. The public outcry at that time led the government to create the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) and the subsequent Group of Ministers (GoM) Committee. These led to one of the most significant attempts at restructuring the Indian military.

With the benefit of hindsight, this chapter re-examines the defence reforms that were initiated during the Vajpayee regime. In doing so it focuses on the big ideas, their implementation, sources of resistance and the debates therein. To be clear, this chapter does not simply list out what measures were implemented – as this has been done elsewhere – but re-examines the reform committees based on what we know now. It begins by describing the composition, functioning, recommendations and salient debates of the two reform committees. Then, it analyses the reform measures that were accepted and the ones which weren’t. The next section gives an overall assessment of defence reforms during this period. It concludes with some observations about the contemporary relevance of the debates surrounding defence reforms.

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