14 April 2017


Ashok K Mehta

As Defence Minister, with one leg in Goa and the other in South Block, Parrikar’s party interests prevailed over national interest. The defence portfolio has been given to Jaitley. This says something about the Modi regime

Changing India’s Defence Minister seems to have become a new normal for this Government. For a second time in three years, a Defence Minister has been replaced with impunity.

Commenting on Manohar Parrikar’s legacy as the Defence Minister, a reputed defence commentator noted that he had to be moved from New Delhi to Goa as Chief Minister due to ‘party interest’ but said nothing about national interest. In fact, it was Prakash Kamat’s interview with Parrikar (The Hindu March 29), which hit the bull’s eye, calling him “the reluctant politician in Delhi durbar, Manohar Parrikar is back where he always wanted to be’’.

When asked was it in national interest to leave (the Defence Ministry) abruptly, Parrikar said, “It is not appropriate to discuss this”, adding “whatever circumstances evolved, I took the best decision’’ without qualifying whose interest was best served.

During the three years Narendra Modi has been the Prime Minister, he has treated defence ‘step-motherly’, giving the Ministry ab initio to Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley as additional charge. But Modi started his own innings with the military with a bang, spending a large chunk of his first 100 days in office sailing on INS Vikramaditya, commissioning INS Kolkata, visiting Leh and reassuring soldiers on award of the vote-winning One-Rank-One-Pension (OROP). Modi would then meet the Service Chiefs once a month to hear their Mann ki Baat.

But the practice was soon discontinued as he did not meet them either on OROP or the Seventh Pay Commission (SPC). Four months on, he brought in IIT-qualified Chief Minister Parrikar from Goa as full-time Defence Minister and then gradually lost interest in the military. Two years later, it was only after the surgical strikes, from which his party drew maximum electoral mileage, that he said, “The country can never pay back its soldiers for their gallant feat.”

Yet, for a second year, defence services were given minimal funding, the current fiscal’s defence budget being the lowest at 1.62 per cent of the gross domestic product since the Himalayan debacle of 1962. Their unfair treatment by the SPC, whose award the Armed Forces have not yet accepted in full, leaves them embroiled in the eternal litany of anomalies. No worthwhile defence reforms — except the limited and ad hoc Shekatkar Committee, whose recommendations are being processed — have been implemented when a great deal was expected from a nationalist party-led Government.

The critical hollowness in defence preparedness, which former Army Chief Gen VK Singh had highlighted in 2013, persists for the most part, though some work has started on fast track. The ad hoc manner in which Modi axed the decade-long search for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft Rafale from 136 to 36, has no parallel in the history of defence procurement. The Air Force is scurrying for a new single-engine fighter for ‘Make in India’ to make up its depleted combat potential. Whether it is Yoga, Swachch Bharat or now the dream of New India, little of consequence happens in Mother India without Modi’s Midas touch.

A senior General privy to a conversation at an Army Commanders’ meeting with Defence Minister Parrikar last year recounted Parrikar saying, “There are bottlenecks in defence; if he (pointing to Defence Secretary Mohan Kumar) will help me, I hope to remove them.” Another General explained how the non-functional upgrade was disallowed by the SPC despite its preamble saying the Armed Forces are most deserving of it. He blamed the Defence Secretary, who apparently wrote to the SPC, that there was no need to give it to the military. This typifies civil-military relations.

As long as the higher defence organisation is not restructured, as recommended by a slew of reform committees, jointness, synergy and optimal value addition will be absent. So will accountability and political direction of the military. Not for nothing did K Subrahmanyam, the ultimate strategic thinker, say, “Politicians enjoy power without any responsibility; bureaucrats wield power without any accountability; and the military assumes responsibility without any direction”.

After all, under the Government of India 1961 Order, Defence Ministry was to act under Second Schedule of the Allocation of Business Rules and Transaction of Business Rules, which stipulated that the responsibility for the defence of India, including preparation for defence by the Armed Forces has been vested in the Defence Secretary. Incredible! The UK Defence Ministry Manual says: “Defence management has to be simpler, more cost-effective, contain clear allocation of responsibility, authority and accountability based on policy and strategy relating to Armed Forces, procurement, estates…”

Parrikar’s pet projects were reinventing Defence Procurement Policy (DPP) and Make in India, where so far joked a General, only the logo has been assembled. The DPP is a voluminous and still confusing document despite several refits. The most elusive military figure in the country is the missing since 1971 CDS. Indira Gandhi had told Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw that he would be the first to hold the CDS’s baton.

Journalists have hounded Parrikar on CDS since he first committed in 2015 at an India Today conclave to have one in place in three months. Everyone is still waiting. The Economist of April 5, 2013, one year after the Naresh Chandra Task Force had made its recommendations on CDS, wrote: “Lip service is paid to cooperation and planning doctrine and operations. But this jointness is aspirational. India lacks a CDS of the kind most countries have because Government does not want single point of advice and service Chiefs do not wish to lose their autonomy”. If truth be told, there is no political will to appoint one in the face of bureaucratic stonewalling.

Parrikar will be remembered for his one-liners: ‘To catch a terrorist, use a terrorist’; Going to Pakistan is like going to hell. And after the surgical strikes: “I helped Army to see its strength (hanuman power) and infused confidence in the soldier. He told Kamath: I made them positive and encouraged them in decision-making. To his credit, the Rafale contract, he claimed, he got reduced by Rs14,000 crore.

As Defence Minister, with one leg in Goa and the other in South Block, in the ultimate analysis, his party’s interests prevailed over national interest. After 27 months just as he learnt the ropes, he was posted back to Goa where the Chief Minister had lost his seat. Once again, the quintessential Jaitley was given additional charge of defence as if it was a part-time time job. That says something for Modi and the priorities of his Government.

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