After 28 months as the Union Minister of Defence, Manohar Parrikar returned to Goa as its chief minister last week, a post he had reluctantly vacated in 2014 when he was shifted to Delhi after the Bharatiya Janata Party won the national elections. Parrikar’s departure from the Cabinet, after the BJP staked claim over the government in Goa that saw a hung Assembly, generated a flurry of fawning articles that almost described him as the greatest defence minister ever.
But lost in the din of the largely positive coverage was a dichotomy: if he was such a great defence minister, why was Prime Minister Narendra Modi allowing him to leave for a state that has only two seats in the Lok Sabha and barely makes a blip on national politics? Wasn’t national security much bigger than state politics, especially for a party that has made nationalism its key calling card?
There is little doubt that Parrikar brought fresh energy and a lot of integrity to the ministry that has usually been the hub of scandals for decades. But his purported achievements make for a rather boring, if not depressing picture. In short, there were a bunch of committees, some purchases, two key foreign policy agreements and some controversial statements.
If there is any key achievement during his 28-month-stint at the helm, it was the signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, or LEMOA – an agreement for close military cooperation – with the US in August. In many ways, this was a major departure from India’s foreign policy objective to avoid any military pact with a foreign power.
The move was almost as much of a divergence as the decision to invite the Japanese Navy to participate in the Malabar naval exercises, that have been conducted with the US every year since 1992. The fact that the Japanese and US share India’s concerns on China’s maritime ambitions was not lost. Not only did this see naval ships from the three nations exercise jointly but also its Naval Special Forces coming together, setting a new bar to the annual effort.
But can Parrikar be credited with a foreign policy initiative that, under the current regime, has largely been the preserve of the Prime Minister’s Office? Clearly, this was Parrikar going along with a major policy shift towards increased cooperation that has been crafted by Modi.
This was also seen in the mysterious move to cancel the order for a 126 Rafale fighter aircraft from France and instead buy 36 at almost the same cost. This inexplicable move was announced when Prime Minister Modi was on a trip to France in 2015 and it is safe to assume that Parrikar was not in the loop when the announcement came.
There were a flurry of articles justifying this piecemeal purchase of 36 aircraft when the Indian Air Force clearly needed much more. In some ways, the Prime Minister’s Office had subsumed the defence and external affairs ministries, the two departments it shares space with in South Block.
This, to a degree, also explains the nature of the relationship Parrikar shared with Modi. The Goa chief minister was one of the first BJP leaders to openly support Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, long before others ditched veteran leader L K Advani. Parrikar did it with conviction because he believed that Modi was the future. A senior BJP leader explained their relationship as follows: “There is a mutual respect shared by the two, and Parrikar accepts Modi as the clear leader, and was always happy to play a second or even a fourth fiddle to him, depending on what the circumstances were. This also worked well for the prime minister”.
Technocrat in office
The fact that Parrikar was from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay had added to his mystique even when he took over the reins as the Chief Minister of Goa for the first time in 2002. He was the quintessential technocrat who would suddenly leave office in his Hyundai Santro to inspect government works in different parts of the state. Parrikar brought the same attitude to the defence ministry, which came to be appreciated and resented at the same time. A number of officials spoke about how Parrikar would often remind them about his IIT heritage, especially when contentious issues were under discussion.
But a seasoned politician would have been able to navigate the defence ministry maze better. Instead, Parrikar remained angular on contentious issues. He was nearly absent when the One-Rank-One-Pension agitation was peaking in mid-2015. The Justice L Narasimha Committee report on the anomalies in the implementation of the OROP scheme for ex-servicemen, which demands pension equity for all officers of a certain rank irrespective of the year in which they retired, had been with Parrikar since October, but did not see any resolution.
Most of the negotiations between the military veterans and the government were carried out by the Prime Minister’s Office, with Principal secretary Nripendra Mishra playing a key role. The defence ministry was largely left out, making people wonder about its efficacy in representing the interests of the ex-servicemen.
Parrikar was also largely absent when the government decided to do away with a long established protocol for appointing the army chief – that of seniority – and overlooked two senior generals to appoint General Bipin Rawat as the army chief. Rawat had been virtually hand picked by the prime minister and the national security advisor, who were keen to have an infantry man rather than an armoured corps officer at the helm. The move left the traditional military hierarchy shaken and opened a can worms that was detrimental to policy that had served the Indian Army well for decades.
“We had hoped that the defence minister would step in and steady the ship,” as senior serving Army general told Scroll.in. “But it was left to the PMO and the Raksha Mantri never spoke up. In our Constitutional scheme of things, that looks upon cabinet ministers to act as checks and balances in a field of competing interests, our voice went completely unheard.
A senior Navy officer, posted in South Block, echoed his sentiments. “Contentious issues would usually end up in the PMO for a resolution,” he said. “As a minister, he [Parrikar] didn’t have the mandate to take the key decisions.”
In some ways, the so-called surgical strikes carried out by Indian Special Forces across the Line of Control with Pakistan in September last year saw the defence minister stepping back while the Prime Minister’s Office took the lead. Like his counterpart in the external affairs ministry, Parrikar was largely a by stander as the decisions were taken and the operational planning began.
Controversies and few deals
If Parrikar was heard, it was mostly at seminars and public talks that led to controversies. He attributed the success of the “surgical strikes” to the teachings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. He also likened the Indian Army to Lord Hanuman, saying that the army didn’t know its strength until they were sent on this mission. Clearly, these were avoidable and the chest beating for political mileage left the traditionally apolitical military worried and fuming.
The politicisation of the military, which started before 2014, also continued to flourish under Parrikar.
But Parrikar was also working on several incremental measures to address yawning gaps in India’s military preparedness. He shepherded a Rs 20,000 crore acquisition that saw indigenous fighter aircraft, artillery and other critical equipment being purchased to improve war fighting capabilities.
He set up a number of committees too look into matters ranging from wage and pension anomalies to defence purchases in a bid to make the ministry more efficient. Weapons and equipment purchases around Rs 1,50,000 crore were given Acceptance of Necessity under him, but will take another five years to fructify. But contentious issues, like the urgent need for setting up a Chief of Defence Staff to oversee all the armed forces, or overhauling of the acquisition process slipped away and clearly, Parrikar had neither the political capital or the clout to push these through.
Yes, Parrikar was a man who could have been the best defence minister in India – but in the end, he clearly wasn’t.