New Delhi: The loss of INS Sindhurakshak to accident or sabotage reflects in a sense the sinking fortunes of the country under ten years of United Progressive Alliance rule. With the likely death of the 18 officers and men on board the ill-fated submarine, India can scarcely be in celebratory humour at tomorrow’s Independence Day anniversary, and to the naval tragedy must be joined the earlier murder of five Indian soldiers by Pakistani troops in Poonch. Never has the nation felt as demoralized, humiliated and hopeless as now, and Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh squarely must take blame for heaving India to the bottom.

As the rare “silent service”, the submarine arm constitutes the country’s last line of defence. It is obviously the most critical leg of the deterrent nuclear triad, but even in a conventional role, its contribution to strategic defence is unequalled. Since the end of the Falklands War in 1982 and especially with the termination of the Cold War, forward-looking navies have begun to cut back on their surface assets, and whilst the age of giant aircraft carriers hasn’t ended, practically only America can afford them on a mammoth scale, and even that is a declining trend. As the world becomes multipolar and the oceans teem with diverse rivalries, the investments in stealth and submarines have become significant, and China is rapidly headed down that course. In exercises conducted over many years by the United States navy, its prized carriers have been “sunk” at an alarmingly high rate, and if you believe it, rather counter-intuitively by diesel electric submarines, such as the Sindhurakshak that went down today. In navies across the world, submariners are considered amongst the best fighting crew, a class apart, and it is a roaring shame that so many of them perished in yesterday’s tragedy. Apart from the considerable naval setback, the loss of Sindhurakshak generally would mark a terrible nadir for India.

This writer and this magazine have relentlessly focussed on the collapsed political-economy under Sonia/ Manmohan Singh/ Palaniappan Chidambaram, but it is time to address the disastrous tenure of Arackaparambil Kurien Antony as the defence minister. Because the defence ministry provides a perfect cover to loot the country but is at the same time not the ideal place for an individual’s power projection, it holds limited appeal for ambitious politicians. After all the decades, there has never been a better defence minister than Yashwantrao Balwantrao Chavan who rebuilt the Indian Army from the ashes of the 1962 war to a fine force. Jagjivan Ram comes lower in the order and George Fernandes made a difference but his tenure was clouded by scandals. And the less said about Sharad Pawar and Mulayam Singh Yadav, the better.

Anthony, on the other hand, may be personally honest (at least he doesn’t attend the lavish farmhouse parties of arms dealers in South Delhi with barely clad call girls in attendance), but that has not prevented defence corruption from peaking under his watch, with the latest Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on the AgustaWestland helicopter deal creating a fresh stink. Anthony has no interest in the defence portfolio and is as keen to replace the prime minister as to return to the politics of home state Kerala, tracking which regularly and unfailingly consumes the first half of his workday. Officials say he does not read files as a rule. He does not keep abreast of operational matters and defence management under him has reduced to a cipher. As for defence-preparedness, don’t ask. Anthony may not be personally responsible for the destruction of INS Sindhurakshak but the ad hoc culture he has bred and his contempt and disdain for military matters has brought decisive slippages in the armed forces. Of the three service chiefs, only Devendra Kumar Joshi of the navy gets a decent rating, but he would have to labour to salvage his reputation after the submarine tragedy. The army chief, Bikram Singh, is most poorly ranked, and the negligence that caused the carnage in Poonch is a clear reflection of his deficient generalship. It hurts to write this.

But the principal culprit is Manmohan Singh. For reasons of delicacy, it was not earlier revealed that his adamancy to visit his native place, Gah, led to the minimization of Pakistan’s perfidy in Poonch by Anthony. Anthony’s statement was cleared by the so-called Pakistan/ China expert, the national security advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon. “Clear” is a euphemism because he changed the substance to let off the Pakistan army. Could a NSA maul the defence minister’s statement on his own? Plainly, he got directions, and it must have come from the prime minister’s office. But the PMO denies any role in Anthony’s controversial statement. Obviously, the PMO is lying. PMO officials now say that Manmohan Singh was determined to visit Pakistan in October or November after the conference with Nawaz Sharief in New York, and since this would perhaps be his last trip as prime minister, he wasn’t willing to forgo it for the Poonch killings. Anthony’s statement was amended for this reason. It has since been downhill for India on the national security side. Pakistani attacks on the Line of Control have only gotten worse. Will the Chinese stand quiet?

If neither the prime minister nor the defence minister cares for the sacrifices of the forces and adheres to a gross and insensitive business-as-usual approach, what message does it transmit down the officer corps? And this cynical decline and widespread demoralization of the forces have picked fierce pace in the ten years of Sonia and Manmohan Singh’s government. The iron discipline of the forces is crumbling. The generals are battling one another. Corruption and nepotism have flared. The Intelligence Bureau recently busted a party attended by arms sellers and air force officers but no one was penalized. And even to be promoted from lieutenant-colonel to colonel now needs political connections. During the Uttarakhand disaster, some officers tried to gain proximity with Rahul Gandhi. Where is the armed forces headed? Whereabouts is the country going?

With the loss of INS Sindhurakshak, you don’t have to look far to guess or know. The ignominy of losing territory is only seconded by a sunken flagship or a downed submarine. We just shot ourselves in the foot in full view of the world.