Manohar Parrikar: Top Gun

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How Manohar Parrikar has transformed a moribund Defence Ministry

On 9 June, India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar started his day with a piece of bad news—a Dornier aircraft of the Coast Guard with three people on board had gone missing off the coast of Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Coast Guard officials were constantly updating him on their search for the aircraft. At around 2 pm in the afternoon, he left for the BJP office at Ashoka Road in New Delhi to return by 5 pm. By then, reports had started emerging of an Indian Army operation in Myanmar to avenge the 4 June killing of 18 Army personnel in the northeastern state of Manipur by armed separatists. Parrikar got busy taking updates on how the news was being circulated in the media. At 6 pm, the Indian Army held a short press briefing to announce its counterattack on cross-border insurgent camps in Myanmar.

India’s Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, in the meantime, had come to meet Parrikar. After the meeting, he met one retired Army officer and then two Navy officers. Next it was Open’s turn. We had been waiting in the office since afternoon, but it was only at 8.45 in the evening that Parrikar finally found some time. Like all days, he had left his residence to reach office by around 8 am. He would be there till 10 pm.

When we entered his room, he was going through a file in between surfing news channels for debates on the Myanmar operation. Even after working for more than 12 hours, there was no sign of exhaustion on his face. He took off his spectacles and asked us to hurry. “Let me work.”

The job of India’s Defence Minister comes with baggage, and 60-year-old Manohar Parrikar doesn’t shy away from it. He accepts that it’s a responsibility conferred upon him by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “The fact that he considered me for the post speaks of the trust bestowed on me, and I need to deliver,” he says.

Often criticised for some of his extempore statements—there are a number of occasions when the opposition Congress has taken him on for these— Parrikar maintains a calm demeanour. Recently, he came under criticism for his ‘kaante’ statement, suggesting that a thorn of one kind could be used against another (read terrorists). Calling it ‘very strange’, Congress spokesperson Tom Vadakkan said, “The police force is not required, the military is not required. You hire terrorists to kill terrorists… I don’t know which part of the world he has learned this [from].” In his defence, says Parrikar, “Only part of my statement was played by the media. ‘Neutralising’ doesn’t mean killing. It also means keeping a watch on their activities; preventing them switching sides.” He adds that he does not want to create any further controversy by saying any more on this.

“They are in the opposition,” he says, referring to critics, “It is their job to raise questions and criticise. But I am doing my job. Why are they scared? Because we are fast-tracking things which they never tried to do.”

On 8 November last year, Parrikar had resigned as third-time Chief Minister of Goa to become the country’s Defence Minister on the directions of Prime Minister Modi. “It was tough initially to leave the state, but I was told by the Prime Minister that it was my time to serve the nation,” he says. On 9 November, he was inducted in the Union Cabinet. The nature of work as a defence minister is completely different from what it was as a chief minister, but this does not bother the workaholic Parrikar in the least. “Even as Chief Minister, I used to start early and finish by late evening. It’s the same here,” he says.

In the Defence Ministry, files move at a pace not seen for many years now. The energy in the air is palpable. “The earlier Minister under the UPA was also regular in office and was honest too, like Parrikar,” observes an official who has seen both regimes at work closely, “But in order to avoid controversy, no big decisions were taken. Thankfully, things are rolling now.”

Parrikar, a metallurgical engineer from IIT-Bombay by educational training, is immodest about how he has lubricated decision-making since he took charge last November. “I am good at pushing things,” he says with a smile. “As Defence Minister, my role is to secure the country today and even in the future. That’s my mandate and I work on those lines,” he adds.

One of the things he pushed was India’s purchase of a fleet of 36 fighter jets. In September last year, French Air Force Chief of Staff Denice Mercier was in Jodhpur along with Indian Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha for an Indo-French joint air exercise, called Garuda-V. While Mercier flew the Sukhoi-30 MKI, Raha flew the French-made Rafale. This was the fifth edition of such a joint exercise between the two countries. Insiders reveal that the current Government’s decision to go ahead with a deal to buy 36 Rafale jet fighters for immediate delivery was based on a ground report from Jodhpur.

Rafale has been in the news since 2012, when the company Dassault won its bid in competition with other aircraft majors to supply 126 fighter jets to India in phases, over a period of time. Ever since the deal was finalised, it has had both supporters and critics. The erstwhile UPA Government could not move forward with the deal and started delaying decisions by forming committees. After all, it was one of the world’s biggest ever defence deals, estimated to cost the country around $20 billion. The logjam was cleared in April this year during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to France, where the order to purchase 36 jets in flyaway condition in a direct government- to-government deal was announced. At that time, there was no clarity whether the original contract had been abandoned. In May, however, Parrikar made it clear that the original contract stood cancelled. “Just look at the magnitude of the contract. It was not economically viable,” says the Defence Minister.

While Parrikar didn’t go into details of the revised deal, he revealed the broad strategy at a meeting of officers at the Defence Ministry. Says an official of the ministry, “The Minister wants to increase the readiness to fly from the current 40 per cent to 75 per cent. This will automatically reduce the demand for more jets. He has a vision and undoubtedly things are improving under him. It may not be visible now, but wait for two years and the difference would be there for all to see.”

General Deepak Kapoor, former Chief of Army Staff, also says that the defence forces have high hopes of the Minister, but need to give him time. “He is an excellent defence minister who would do well for the service as well as the country,” says General Kapoor. “We hope the Government implements the ‘One Rank One Pension’ scheme as early as possible. It doesn’t make a nice picture if ex-Army persons go on strike and protest for it,” he adds.

“Whatever our stand is has already been addressed by the Prime Minister and I have nothing more to add. We are committed to fulfilling our promise and we will do so,” says Parrikar.

Among the Minister’s bigger initiatives, the most important is a new defence procurement policy (DPP) that is slated to come in by July end. “We need to create some policy guideline framework along with a time schedule so that procurement decisions are made quickly,” he says, “When people know you are going to take time to decide, they will build this delay into the cost.” Many defence experts have criticised the existing policy. “The current policy is such that it is virtually impossible to buy any equipment,” says Dr Monika Chansoria, senior fellow at Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.

Also, there is politicking by companies whose bids get rejected to try and scuttle any deal. Parrikar acknowledges this as a problem, but says he plans to bring about the changes that are necessary for the new policy to work smoothly in the country’s interest.

“Sometimes, when you select an L1, the L2 who has lost out starts to lobby against it, digging for dirt on L1. All these aspects have to be considered and the best solution is to ask the company to manufacture in India,” says the Union Minister.

The revised policy of the Modi Government would also iron out problems with the current process of hurriedly blacklisting a company. “Blacklisting should be the final punishment. There will be punishments or penalties [henceforth], depending on the type of crime,” he says. “If there are four players and you blacklist two of them, then you are restricting your choice. This has to be sorted out.”

‘Make in India’, a key campaign initiative of the NDA Government, is also high on Parrikar’s list of priorities. India is now the world’s largest market for any producer of armaments, having spent around $15.2 billion on defence imports over the last three years with plans to spend more. To promote domestic manufacturing, Parrikar has taken a number of measures. Among them is a rationalisation of the list of defence items requiring an industrial licence and also a security manual for licensed defence industries. Of the 39 acquisition proposals approved by the Government, 32 of them, worth over Rs 88,900 crore (95.6 per cent) fall under the ‘Buy (Indian)’ and ‘Buy & Make (Indian)’ categories. To hasten the modernisation of equipment, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) meets every month for crucial decisions, which was not the case with the earlier regime. Parrikar says the DAC has cleared projects worth Rs 78,000 crore in the last few months. “Out of this, Rs 65,000 crore alone is under the ‘Make in India’ category,” he says.

Air Marshal (Retd) M Matheswaran, who is currently an advisor to Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, says that regular DAC meetings demonstrate how the Defence Ministry has become so much more vibrant under Parrikar. “I am happy to see meeting dates being fixed in advance,” he says.

Some feel Parrikar’s biggest success has been in improving the security situation on India’s borders. “It’s for everyone to see India’s changed approach in securing its borders and the decline in infiltration attempts,” says Chansoria. The situation along the testy Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu & Kashmir, in particular, has achieved stability as compared with the previous year. There has been a decline of 33 per cent in Pakistan-initiated ceasefire violations and a decrease of 29 per cent in successful infiltrations since 26 May 2014. As many as 110 terrorists were neutralised in 2014, the highest figure recorded over the past four years. There has also been a decline in terror attacks and related violence within the country. In addition, Indian security forces have seen a reduction in the fatalities they suffer.

The year’s biggest attack was the ambush that took place on 4 June in Manipur. In retaliation, special Army commandos were ordered to carry out a surgical strike inside Myanmar to gun down terrorists. “It definitely ups the morale of soldiers. At the same time, it discourages terror outfits from planning such attacks,” says Chansoria.

There are still critics. Air Vice Marshall (Retd) Kapil Kak is one of them. “I look at it in terms of rhetoric and reality, claims and performance,” he says. He raises questions on everything from the Rafale deal to ‘Make In India’ to the country’s defence budget. “Political leadership is now in sloganeering mode. One is not sure what the coherent strategy is. For ‘Make In India’ to be a success, you need trained human resources, capital investment and private sector participation. Where is the roadmap?” he asks. Kak wants the Government to come out with a white paper on India’s defence and national security, or a defence review. He finds the decision to halve the budgetary allocation of the Mountain Strike Corp inexplicable. “If this is rapid decision-making, then I am confused,” he says, giving five out of ten marks to Parrikar. Former Defence Minister AK Antony had this to allege on the issue: “I would like to say that the present Government has compromised our national security. One of the glaring examples… was their decision to downsize the mountain strike force. According to me, it is an anti-national activity. During the last decade onwards, we were steadily strengthening the infrastructure and also the manpower in border areas. During the UPA regime, the Government formed two divisions after 29 years in the Northeast, one in Nagaland and the other in Tezpur in Assam.” On his part, the Defence Minister denies any cut in funds. “The earlier government had allocated the money only on paper… where is the money?” asks Parrikar.

One of Parrikar’s reasons to be proud, beyond his speed of decision making, is his ability to roll up his sleeves and take action himself. This came across this January when he decided to terminate the contract of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief Avinash Chander. “I didn’t want such a crucial post to be held by someone on contract. I need the younger generation to lead such organisations,” says Parrikar.

He goes through every file that comes to his desk, rather than being briefed by his office staff. It helps him in taking informed decisions and also in forming a viewpoint on a particular deal or subject. Whenever he is not in a meeting, he is busy with files, often making changes and suggestions. “He thinks out-of-the box and has solutions to every problem,” says a Ministry official. The Minister’s engineering degree also helps him understand deal technicalities. One officer recalls how Parrikar described the engine capacity of an aircraft at a recent meeting.

Parrikar is wary of using VVIP services. On 27 May, he visited Raipur to inaugurate a fair to celebrate NDA- II’s first anniversary. Since it was not ministerial work, he took a flight on a private airline. That same day, he flew to Mumbai from Raipur, and the next day, he went to Pune for a wedding function where he left his security detail outside and stood in queue with others for dinner. He returned to Mumbai, and a day after went back to Pune to attend a Defence Ministry programme. This time, he flew by a defence aircraft. His sober get- up is also much talked about in power circles. Recently, he was even criticised by some for wearing a half-sleeves shirt and trousers at the official reception ceremony of the US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. “He wore this even at the wedding of his son while guests appeared in garish clothes,” says a close associate of the Minister, “He is like that only. He doesn’t believe in showing off.”

Perhaps that is why he hesitates when our photographer requests him to pose for pictures. He simply returns to the files on his desk, and is engrossed once again in defence details.