Nirmala Sitharaman has been given charge of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) after the recent cabinet rejig. As she sets out to disperse her duties, she will have before her some long standing and seemingly insurmountable issues – issues that consecutive defence ministers have found onerous, to say the least. They include, rejuvenating the Make in India programme, forging partnerships for defence production under the Strategic Partnership model and, consolidating the Defence MSME (micro, small and medium enterprise) base and providing them with a level playing field.
In all of these, Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP), which comes under the purview of the Commerce Ministry, will have a significant role to play. As someone who has previously handled the Commerce Ministry, Sitharaman is perhaps best placed to identify and iron out any contradicting interests that may arise between these ministries.
But, at the heart of all the issues lies an unfulfilled promise of every defence minister so far – to dramatically increase the self-reliance quotient of our defence production. Of course, it is not simple. Self-reliance is a sum total of a large number of measures with often contradicting objectives. Besides this daunting task, the ministry is also entrusted with wide ranging duties.
The ministry is responsible for disbursing a huge defence budget (Rs 3.6 lakh crore for 2017-2018) with which it has to take care of acquisitions, manage assets, supplies and logistics, offset management, budgeting, formulation and execution of programmes of scientific research, drawing service quality requirements in coordination with integrated defence staff (IDS), welfare of personnel, and so on. Giving precedence to such a diverse range of activities is always going to be a challenge.
In light of these observations, is it not expedient to examine the essential traits required for a defence minister and what the ministry actually needs? If preparation for defence has to be entrusted in safe hands, a revisit to how a defence minister is after all chosen becomes necessary. You see, we will not always find the likes of Manohar Parrikar or Sitharaman in the defence minister’s chair. Hence picking the right candidate, each time, isn’t a luxury but is an absolute necessity.
Ours is a vast country, it shares borders with not-so-friendly neighbours and has a really long coastline.
A defence minister’s role in safeguarding our interests and ensuring security is central and inalienable. Yet, time and again we seem to undermine its gravitas. The job, as we have seen already, needs extreme dynamism, leadership and impeccable decision-making skills. If one weighs these traits against defence ministers of the ilk of A K Antony or Mulayam Singh Yadav, we start wondering if we really take our security question seriously.
This thought brings me to the larger issue at hand – what are the traits of a good defence minister? Do the annals of history offer any lessons at all?
After the 1962 fiasco, Yashwanthrao Chavan is believed to have steadied the Indian ship, going on to successfully lead India till the 1965 war. In the book Debacle to Revival the author attributes the success of resurrecting the Indian defence forces post 1962 to Chavan and says, “he was successful in almost everything that he did”. Chavan is depicted as a restless man, always at work and never to keep any files pending at his table. Similar current flows below how Babu Jagjivan Ram functioned. Jagjivan Ram was vital in creating a public consensus during the 1971 war. He toured the country and rallied the masses behind the armed forces in support of their action in East Pakistan.
R Venkataraman who was in the office between 1982 and 1984, had the gift of foresight that a defence minister ought to have. When Dr Abdul Kalam proposed to build only a low level quick reaction tactical core vehicle and a medium range surface to surface weapon system, Venkataraman suggested that he should instead launch an Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) while also making the funds available for its execution. This heralded the birth of Prithvi, Trishul, Akash, Nag and Agni missiles. Needless to remind us of their strategic importance in today’s geo-political developments.
George Fernandes, a seasoned politician, proved to be an effective aid to Atal Behari Vajpayee during the Kargil war. The ‘limited war’ theory professed by him introduced a new tangent to conventional warfare theory and outlined the changing nature of engagement with the enemy. Besides these, prime ministers themselves holding the defence portfolio is ill advised. Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, V P Singh and Chandra Shekhar simultaneously held the Prime Minister’s Office as well as the MoD. Again, given the plethora of functions MoD entails, such a practice would prove detrimental to both the jobs.
To put it bluntly, barring two or three, defence ministers have traditionally been simply place holders. At times of war, the military, like it should, has taken the lead role in preparations and war, although with the much important political backing.
I do not say this with an intention to demean the office, but today, the importance of a defence minister has been reduced. The Prime Minister himself sets the tone for various defence deals and you have the Prime Minister and the External Affairs Minister to engage with the foreign nations. For any major acquisition, a nod from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) is a must. The committee also comes into the picture if the defence minister wants to implement any institutional reforms. Hence a defence minister only stays as a proponent of a reform to the CCS and not the decision maker. In case, the much debated Chief of Defence Staff position is institutionalised, consolidation and coordination between various forces will also not solely be the minister’s responsibility.
What remains thus, is the responsibility to propel various scientific programmes of the MoD, bringing together all the stake holders from the domestic industrial base, understanding the needs of our R&D community, and urgently indigenising crucial defence platforms. If the defence minister has to make any meaningful contribution, it is important that the ministry is given authority to take major decisions.
As India navigates through an uncertain and emerging world order, ramping up its self-reliance quotient in defence production should be its top most priority. Rocketing imports bills on defence equipment, trade imbalances, changing regimes and loyalties, all of them hint at this urgent need to be self-reliant.
Hence I feel that in the future, a technocrat as the minister is what the MoD may need. Let’s remind ourselves what Dr Kalam did despite his limited powers on governance issues. I am not drawing any parallel but given the mandate of the MoD to boost indigenisation of arms production, should people like Dr V K Saraswat or Dr Kota Harinarayana not be considered for the post in future?
Take for instance the former US Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carter. A physicist and a former Harvard professor, Carter brought to the table his rich knowledge in science and international affairs.
As a 70 years old democracy, should we not start making such choices? If it’s utopian to think of, can we at least have in place a system to scrutinise the proposed candidature just like how it’s done for the appointment of any secretary in the US administration? An All-party Parliamentary Committee mimicking the Senate Committee can be envisaged for this purpose. While some may say that it infringes upon the Prime Minister’s prerogative to pick any candidate, a churn of candidates is necessary keeping in mind the national interest.
The instances of an actual war are rare in today’s times. During peace time, we must strive towards improving the procedures, ease the acquisition processes, harmonise practices inside the ministry and most important of all, do all that which gives a fillip to self reliance. Collaborating with foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for domestic production of equipment is only the first step in our journey towards self-reliance.
As the demand grows, we will find that the cost of capital will be much more than the cost of supply, invariably making “off-the-shelf” buying of equipment economically attractive. We have missed many opportunities in the past and I fear that only few more are left before we start harming our prospects irreversibly.
Sitharaman, therefore, must keep it in mind that if there is any right time to boost defence indigenisation, it is now. Best wishes to her!