Defence ministers should carry a big stick but speak softly.

In Manohar Parrikar, an intellectual who studied at the elite Indian Institute of Technology, India has got the opposite: someone with a small stick and a very big mouth.

On May 21, he spoke of using terrorists as state policy. His words as quoted were: “There are certain things that I obviously cannot discuss here.” However, he then went on to discuss them anyway: “If there is any country – why only Pakistan – planning something against my country, we will definitely take some proactive steps.” Using a Hindi phrase he said “kante se kanta nikalna. We have to neutralise terrorists through terrorists only. Why can’t we do it? We should do it. Why does my soldier have to do it?”

India has tried the use-terrorists-against-terrorists approach and it has failed. It has failed in Kashmir, where in the 1990s the Congress government decided to spare the military and arm opponents of the Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist groups. This experiment ended very soon, and its leader Kuka Parray was later killed by the militants who remained dominant.

The experiment has also failed in central India, where the state has fielded armed militias against Maoists, who have since turned against the helpless population. It is remarkable that a minister should have, given this experience, even considered saying what Parrikar did.

Display of defiance

The opposition was predictably aghast and P Chidambaram said that this was “a terrible statement by the Defence Minister. I hope he recognises the enormity of the statement he made and quickly finds a way to withdraw it”. He added that “India has not deployed any terrorists or criminal elements in any part of Pakistan during the past 10 years of UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government and I believe that NDA [National Democratic Alliance] government also did not and will not do it… His statement is completely out of line and he should withdraw it immediately”.

In fact Parrikar doubled down on his bombast. He said on May 26 that he would “go to any extent to protect India” and those who attack will be “paid back in the same coin”.

In Pakistan, this was seen as validation of its claims that India was meddling in Balochistan and elsewhere and supporting violence against the country. It should have been obvious that everyone in the Bharatiya Janata Party government that such a statement might bring a few seconds of applause but was damaging in the long term. A navy officer who bragged about shooting a Pakistani boat made the same mistake and came into trouble a few months ago.

Oath of secrecy

In my view, Parrikar has violated the two oaths he took on being sworn in as a minister. The wording is that he will act “in accordance with the constitution and the law”, which his using terrorists statements are in violation of. The other oath is that of secrecy. All governments play mischief because international law is vague, but few ministers go on to boast about it.

Parrikar’s oath of secrecy binds him to “not directly or indirectly communicate or reveal to any person or persons any matter which shall be brought under my consideration” except “as may be required for the due discharge of my duties”. This bragging of his, if he was indeed revealing state policy, was not required for due discharge of his duties.

Parrikar accepts that India is a poor nation with few resources. To retired servicemen demanding equal pensions, Parrikar said, “people do not know the financial implications of this,” thereby justifying the delay in the scheme’s implementation.

Under his watch, India’s air force will get 36 new Rafale fighter planes instead of 126. This may be for many reasons but surely the budget is one of them. Parrikar has also cut the plan for a mountain warfare unit from 80,000 men to 35,000 men. He says “where is the money?” to support grand schemes. He is quite right in saying this. He should concentrate his time and energy on acquiring a bigger stick, rather than forgetting, as he did over this bragging of using terrorists, to speak softly.