How good a Defence Minister would Nirmala be?

How good a Defence Minister would Nirmala be?

Subir Bhaumik,
Union Minister for Defence, Nirmala Sitharaman inside the cockpit of MiG 29 fighter aircraft on her visit to Air Force Station Jamnagar. (PTI Photo)

The BJP has tried to project Nirmala Sitharaman’s elevation as a full cabinet minister as an example of women empowerment in India. Some in the party have also pointed out that making her India’s first defence minister since Indira Gandhi holding the portfolio for a brief spell was because PM Modi was impressed by her performance as junior Commerce Minister. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has held the defence portfolio since she took charge in January 2000. Female ministers in Bangladesh have held crucial portfolios such as home affairs, foreign affairs and agriculture in their first term. The BJP will take a while to beat that.

So to claim Nirmala’s elevation as defence minister as an example of women empowerment is an act of self-deception.

It is true Nirmala is not a braggart like many of her colleagues who threaten a ‘muh tor jabab’ (befitting reply) to Pakistan every second day. But checking on the Industry and Commerce Ministry’s performance during the time Nirmala held independent chargeof it, shows there is not much achievement she could take credit for. Not that she is responsible for failures of Modi’s signature schemes such as ‘Make in India’… where the parameters were drawn up by Modi and his coterie of favourite bureaucrats. These bureaucrats would rather have Nirmala take the blame for the failure of these schemes.

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It is true that Nirmala can benefit from her Commerce Ministry exposure when she seeks to make a success of the ‘Make in India’ scheme in the defence sector. The ministry would also benefit from her knowledge when it seeks to speed up key defence acquisitions. However, for a country like India, where much tension constantly builds up with neighbours such as Pakistan and China, would it not have been better to have a specialist, a domain expert, someone who has served in the defence forces to be bestowed with the portfolio of Minister of Defence. India has a long tradition of strong and credible civilian defence ministers like Baboo Jagjivan Ram and Y B Chavan, but BJP has given the nation only someone as good as George Fernandes — the master agitator suddenly promoted to handle the defence of the nation. He did not lack courage and flew supersonic fighter aircrafts but is that not more of a symbolic gesture? And the coffin scam did not do George much good.

It is no coincidence that both the USA and China currently have former generals holding the crucial portfolio of defence. The incumbent US National Security Adviser is also a retired general.

Nirmala Sitharaman’s academic background shows an interest not so much in defence studies but in economics. She did her MA in JNU and followed that up with an MPhil and worked in PricewaterhouseCoopers as a senior manager before entering the political arena along with her husband who hailed from a political family and whose mother was an MLA.

This is not to denigrate Nirmala Sitharaman’s contribution to public life. She has served for the last three years as minister of state holding independent charge of the portfolio of commerce and industry, something more aligned with her MA and MPhil academic studies. That she is one of four ministers of state to be promoted to Cabinet rank speaks well of her performance, even though it is by no means stellar.

While wishing her well as the Modi government’s full-time defence minister, two questions have to be asked:

(a)  Was it not right to consider a respected military veteran with strategic vision and systemic knowledge to be chosen to handle the defence portfolio?

(b)  Is it that generals, admirals or air marshals stand automatically debarred from being considered for the post of Defence Minister?

If an economist can serve as India’s finance minister or a lawyer as the minister for justice, why should someone who has served with distinction in the defence services automatically be disqualified even after retirement from being India’s defence minister.

The defence establishment in India has a fine tradition of serving the democratically-elected government. India is not Pakistan where generals periodically overthrow elected governments. India has a number of retired generals, admirals and air marshals, who have served with distinction, and one of them could have been entrusted with the defence portfolio.

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This is not to suggest, as some media reports have, that Modi should have chosen one of the two retired soldiers in his council of ministers, both serving as ministers of state.

Former Army Chief General V K Singh is controversial, given to rash comments, focuses often on trivia like renaming of roads. Someone who defamed the Indian army by getting into the unseemly controversy over his age does not deserve the Raksha Mantri post.

Colonel (retd) R S Rathore is a great sportsman, having got India its first Olympic shooting medal. No problem if he is sports minister — he would do better than the former or the present incumbent. But he left the army as a Colonel, a level at which one’s tactical rather than strategic capabilities are tested. And his brash comment admitting Indian commando raids in Myanmar territory got the government into serious trouble resulting in NSA Doval and Foreign Secretary Jaishanakar having to rush to Myanmar to do some serious damage limitations. Indian and Myanmar troops have frequently crossed into each other’s territory in ‘hot pursuit’ of insurgents but have never gone public. Rathore broke that red line and embarrassed his government.

The BJP had a fine general who had distinguished himself both as chief minister of Uttarkhand and as India’s minister for infrastructure development — retired Major General B C Khanduri.

But he belongs to the Vajpayee-Advani generation, whom Modi has pushed into political ‘vanbaas’ (exile).

He could have looked at some veteran generals, admirals or air marshals who are not exactly in the party or the RSS but have distinguished records.  But he did not.

Specialization is the need of the hour, especially at this critical juncture. For a portfolio as crucial as defence where there are regular reports not just in the media but by parliamentary standing committees on key areas in which India’s defence preparedness has fallen short and is lagging behind that of powerful neighbouring nations like China which are not reluctant to use their clout to keep threatening others, as evinced by the uneasy situation in Doklam.

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A search for merit need not, therefore, be restricted to only those who have held ministerial portfolios in the 40-month-old Modi government. This is not to say that a woman cannot be a defence minister. But the woman in question should also be interested in defence. After being elected as US Senator in the year 2000, Hillary Clinton joined the Senate Committee on Armed Services. Hillary had five years of experience in the Senate Committee on Armed Services before President Obama appointed her as the Secretary of State.

Nirmala has started off enthusiastically, donning military caps during her visits to forward areas in Sikkim and Northeast, even walking up to Chinese soldiers on the Sikkim border to greet them.

She may also fly the Sukhois and board the submarines, but symbol must be backed by substance. She may even score some success with ‘Make in India’ in defence sector in view of the groundwork already done.

However Nirmala has to make an impact in policy reforms to modernise India’s defence, in which all her recent predecessors, Congress’ Anthony and BJP’s Manohar Parikkar failed.

As defence minister, Sitharaman’s task is larger than what she handled in the Commerce Ministry. Not only does she have to run a ministry, which deals with more than a million people and whose budget is nearly Rs 360,000 crore, but to run it well. For this she needs to carry out deep reforms and restructuring of the ministry.

The Indian ministry of defence (MoD) is obsolete, its public sector units and factories dysfunctional. The MoDruns a military whose organisation is outdated. Worse is the barely concealed hostility between the civilians who run it and the military personnel who have to implement its policies without having an effective role in formulating them

The agenda for reform is vast and has been outlined by several committees since 1990. Unfortunately, it has been subverted by the bureaucracy.

Both Antony and Parrikar, as political heads of the ministry and responsible to the Cabinet Committee on Security, failed in their job to bring about discipline in the sector they handled. The Group of Ministers of the BJP-led NDA-I government recommended a range of measures to integrate the civilian and military segments of the MoD. The babus simply changed the nomenclature and declared that the decision had been implemented.

Now, the head-quarter of the Indian Army is the Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence (Army). But their second major recommendation, linked to the first and seconded in 2012 by the Naresh Chandra Committee, to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), has been shelved for inexplicable reasons, even after the experiment worked at the territorial command level in the Andaman & Nicobar islands.

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The generalist bureaucracy lacks the expertise to advise the government, so they spend their time preventing the uniformed military from doing so. India has been trying to reform the MOD since the constitution of the Arun Singh Committee in 1990. This has been through two key reforms — the integration of the civil and military components of the MOD and the appointment of a CDS — which would, in turn unlock a whole slew of reforms including the creation of theatre commands.

Sitharaman’s initial remarks suggest that she, like Parrikar, will be more focused on acquisitions and will seek to promote Indian manufacture of weapons systems. This is all for the good, but it cannot be achieved overnight. Also, it requires systematic and deep reform in the way defence planning, acquisitions, R&D and manufacturing are linked.

Fixing manufacturing and acquisitions alone will not work. She needs to urgently tackle the need to reorganise India’s sprawling military to make it an effective fighting unit for 21st century warfare, where challenges range from nuclear armed adversaries to proxy jihadis. This means shedding flab, integrating commands, getting them to work as a single unit with the civilians and so on.

She will confront a wall of vested interests who do not want any reform because, like all bureaucratic organisations, they are afraid they will lose out on change. It’s the task of the political boss to knock their heads and change things. Sitharaman needs to first understand the nature of the challenge, get the support of her boss Modi and push the reforms, irrespective of who is on board or not in her ministry.  But in view of her absolute lack of exposure to defence issues, since she joined politics, it would be a case of great expectations that may not really materialise.