Manohar Parrikar remained Raksha Mantri (Defence Minister) for less than two and a half years. Before one carries out an analysis of his achievements or what he has left behind, it may be pertinent to look at the task of a Minister of Defence and how his predecessors have fared.
Since Independence, the country has had a total of 25 Defence Ministers, of which six were also Prime Ministers. The Defence Minister is often assisted by a Minister of State for Defence and/or Deputy Minister(s) of Defence. The Defence Minister has to appreciate the nuances of security issues, be aware of the requirements of the Services and does not succumb to the foibles and intrigues of the Bureaucracy.
Indian Armed Forces have not been singularly lucky in having wise, efficient and professionally knowledgeable Defence Ministers most of the time. The Defence Minister has an extremely important role to play in the Council of Ministers, in that, he is a member of the powerful Cabinet Committee on Security; earlier known as Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs; which is the highest policy-making body in the country on all aspects of National Security. But due to the policy/practice of the wrong man being put in the right chair; the end result always was, officials of the Ministry of Defence continued to rule the roost, irrespective of who Defence Minister was.
“The problem is in Delhi. And hence the solution to this problem has to be found in Delhi itself”, Narendra Modi, who had just been anointed the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, said while addressing a rally of ex-servicemen in Rewari in 2013.
The BJP manifesto that was released a year later was ambitious: India would become a Defence Manufacturing Hub, a new Defence Policy would be released, bureaucratic and inefficient procurement would be Restructured, and the Modernisation of India’s Military Equipment and Weaponry, often stymied by corruption and incompetence, would move at a fast pace. While Manohar Parrikar set in motion important reform processes as per the said manifesto, he ends his tenure with only a few genuine achievements.
Governments have come and gone since 1947, but the sluggish trajectory of annual Defence Budgets continues, interrupted only by Pay Commissions and Wars. He could not reverse/change the trend nor will Mr Arun Jetley. It does not require any great power of prophecy to rule out a steep hike in the Defence Budget in the coming years. The history of the Defence Budget over the past seven decades should be enough to drive home this truth.
Parrikar’s tenure as Defence Minister got off to a shaky start. Finance Minister Arun Jaitleyinitially handled Defence till November 2014; a five-month period in which most issues relating to the Defence Sector were hardly touched. When Manohar Parrikar took over as Defence Minister on 09 November 2014, there was a sense of relief as well as optimism. The Services welcomed him for being more professional and technically sound than a normal Politician. They expected that he would ensure a better deal for them; would assist them in regaining their pride and elan and were looking forward to concrete moves towards modernisation that had virtually stopped.
Parrikar did manage the delivery of diluted OROP (One Rank, One Pension), a new Defence Procurement Policy, a new Vendor Black Listing Policy with heavy financial penalties, great deal of focus and attention on Indigenisation of India’s Military Equipment and Ecosystem. The new Defence Procurement Policy, released in early 2016, intended boosting indigenous content in India’s weaponry and jump-starting local Defence Manufacturing. In July 2016, he promised ‘Make-in-India’ Project’, the Strategic Partnership Model that would be expected to kick-start Defence Manufacturing projects worth billions of Dollars. But nothing has come up on ground till date.
Toward this end, Parrikar set up various Committees and Panels. They were to examine various issues or possible reforms including contentious issues such as the ‘Strategic Partnership Policy’ or the Security Flaws exposed by the Pathankot attack. The latest one is a report that recommends that an Autonomous Body be set up outside the Defence Ministry that would help speed up procurements for the Indian Army’s modernisation process.
The Defence Ministry has acknowledged this particular report but it remains to be seen how Jaitley will view their suggestions. Parrikar tried reducing Defence imports, boosting Indigenisation and Modernising Military equipment. To achieve that, he regularly sent out Teams of Officials to various countries. He also managed some of the tension in defence ties between Russia and India very well.
On the other hand, Make-in-India, as it applies to the Defence Industry, is still a distant goal. Unfortunately, in the later part of his tenure, Parrikar tried to politicise the Surgical Strikes, and even questioned India’s “No First Use Nuclear Policy”. Perhaps the worst action that he took was joining his party colleagues in grossly taking credit for the professionally competent actions of the Army in Surgical Strike and virtually politicising the Indian military, which takes pride in its apolitical ethos.
After becoming Defence Minister, he announced that he would reduce “Terrorist infiltration across the Line of Control (LoC)”. This clearly hasn’t happened. On the contrary; this year in early January; a Parliamentary Panel has slammed the Defence Ministry stating that “No concrete measures had been taken to beef up security in Frontline Military Bases even after the Uri and Pathankot attacks”.
This criticism is embarrassing when Lt-Gen Philip Campose Panel was set up to ‘Review Existing Security Infrastructure’ and a Task Force headed by former Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta was also set up to ‘Study flaws in India’s Border management’. The modernisation and acquisition of Basic Military Equipment also is not yet complete, even though current Defence Minister Jaitley has vehemently denied this in his first interview after Parrikar’s exit. The Defence Minister could not, in addition to all this, transform ‘India’s Tender and Procurement Process’ to make it more efficient.
Continuity is required in Defence Ministry, especially when projects have a long gestation period. So unless they are pushed continuously, the time lag will keep increasing and the process of indigenisation will keep getting delayed and “Delay is always detrimental to National Security”.
Among the top priorities of Parrikar was the Policy on the Strategic Partnership Model, part of the Defence Procurement Procedure, which was to spell out Guidelines for tie-ups between foreign manufacturers and the private sector in high technology areas to build military hardware in India. The other major issue was implementation of the Seventh Pay Commission for the Services, which was already done for their civilian counterparts. The issue is being looked into by the Anomalies Committee and there is growing resentment among the services over the delay.
Parrikar’s tenure as Defence Minister had its ups and downs. At the behest of the bureaucracy, he started interfering in the internal affairs of the Armed Forces in the long-pending and highly emotive issue of granting OROP. While the Services continued to struggle to get their dues in financial terms; the bureaucrats, police and other civil administrative services walked away smugly with all kinds of enhancements, perks and the like. Even the so-called NFU is being denied to Services, despite a judicial ruling on the issue.
Besides financial matters, the plummeting of the Defence Budget reached a nadir in his tenure, with less than 1.6 per cent of the GDP being allotted in this year’s budget. That brings down the Services, specially the Army, to the same level as it existed in 1962, the outcome of which is well-known to the Nation. The Army, Navy and Air Force have received only 60, 67 and 54 per cent, respectively; of the funds they had sought for modernisation. In addition, out of the total outlay of Rs 2.74 lakh crore, only Rs 86,488 crore has been earmarked for modernisation. What makes it worse is that the bulk of this Capital Outlay will be used to pay “Committed Liabilities” of earlier arms contracts, instead of new projects. When a Defence Minister joins the committee culture of the bureaucracy, as Parrikar has done, with recommendations of the committees either pending or extended or lying in cupboards without any action, then all is obviously at a standstill on the security of the nation.
There are indeed other steps which he should have initiated, such as the creation of Joint Logistics and Theatre Commands that could potentially bring down costs and increase operational efficiency. But the thrust for these measures is unlikely to come from within the Services, Bureaucracy or from the Political Class, unless independent and objective analyses by Defence Economists points to the imperative of adopting these measures and throws up a roadmap for bringing about these seminal changes. Parrikar could not do it, because though he is a well-meaning, intelligent and highly educated person, he was perhaps too much of a gentleman to squarely face his well-entrenched colleagues in the Party and the Government. This resulted in his doing very little to assist the Armed Forces in many aspects, some of which have been highlighted above.