Opinion

We need a full-time defence minister, now

AK Sachdev | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on April 03, 2017

Constrained: By a lacuna at the top - Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Too much unfinished business is hurting the sector, and is detrimental to its indigenisation programme

The indecisive election results in Goa and the resulting abrupt departure from Delhi of Manohar Parrikar, the largely reluctant but fairly diligent defence minister, are now fait accompli. All the whining by righteous nation lovers bemoaning the impropriety of the Government placing Parrikar’s interest above that of a crucial ministry is wasted persuasion and will not bring him back.

The transfer of the ministry to Arun Jaitley (in addition to his equally crucial finance ministry) is a re-enactment of Modi’s decision to do the same in May 2014 (when the BJP came to power). The decision to defer the installation of a permanent minister is as mystifying now as it was then. The defence ministry and the finance ministry work from the South Block and the North Block, respectively. The physical distance between them is not an insurmountable problem but managing two crucial ministries simultaneously would certainly mean the dilution of one or both. Any attenuation in the defence ministry’s functioning has serious repercussions, especially as the parliamentary standing committee on defence recently slammed the Government for its “ad hoc”, “casual” and “lackadaisical” approach.

Passing the baton

Musings in the media eulogising Parrikar’s fine work in the ministry are balanced by equally critical observations on his acts of omission and commission. Perhaps the highlight of Parrikar’s tenure will always be the surgical strikes that brought a rush of national pride to the fore, bridled Pakistan (albeit temporarily), and raised the bar for India-Pakistan jousting. However, a lot of good initiatives remain works in progress and there is an urgent need to get a competent and diligent minister in place to pick up the baton where Parrikar threw it and get on with the race against time.

The Defence Procurement Procedure 2016 (DPP 2016) was promulgated during Parrikar’s tenure; the document attempted to complement the Make in India programme launched in September 2014 (just before he took over as minister). However, the DPP 2016, released without the all-important strategic partnership chapter, remained largely impotent and did little to improve indigenisation, to promote Make In India, or to improve the war-preparedness of the defence services significantly. In the context of military modernisation and acquisitions, Parrikar appeared intent on moving in the right direction but his efforts were just warming up, and real and substantial results were yet to be achieved.

Although Parrikar claimed to have boosted the morale of the defence forces, the BJP’s stand on One Rank One Pension (OROP) made a huge dent on the way veterans and serving personnel look at the establishment. This dissatisfaction is likely to have long-term effects on recruitment patterns and of course the morale of the defence forces, unless the new incumbent changes direction. The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) concept was also being rejuvenated during his tenure and there was hope that he would take a balanced decision in the larger interest of the nation. With his departure, it may again go back to the rear-most shelves of the ministry.

Labours lost?

Several committees were set up with an eye on the future; there now lurks the danger that the work most of these committees put in may turn into lost labour. To quote, the Lt Gen Shekatkar Committee made useful recommendations to enhance the combat potential of the defence forces and rebalance defence expenditure so as to accomplish a saving of ₹25,000 crore. Of its 200 recommendations, Jaitley has accepted 90 after a review on taking over.

There remains a lot to be done to raise FDI levels in the defence sector from their embarrassingly low levels and move closer to the hazily distant Make in India goalpost. Parrikar’s fledgling first steps had indeed set into motion a stumbling totter, but a new minister is needed to raise its torturously slow pace to a purposeful stride towards substantial indigenisation.

There are speculative reports about who will finally ascend to the defence minister’s chair but for the time being, Jaitley may not have the time and the inclination to bring about major policy changes; these may get deferred to the tenure of the permanent incumbent. Each day that the defence ministry subsists with a stand-in minister is a day lost; there is an urgent need to instate a permanent minister — one who swiftly gets to grips with his onerous job.

The writer is a retired air force officer

Published on April 03, 2017
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