What Manohar Parrikar Leaves Behind – and What He Doesn’t – as India’s Raksha Mantri

While Parrikar set in motion important reform processes, he was unable to cut through his ministry's byzantine bureaucracy and ends his tenure with a few achievements.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar with Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha and Army chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag at a press conference to announce implementation of One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme at South Block in New Delhi on Saturday. PTI Credit: Photo by Atul Yadav

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar with Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha and Army chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag at a press conference to announce implementation of One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme at South Block in New Delhi on Saturday. PTI Credit: Photo by Atul Yadav

New Delhi: “The problem is in Delhi. And hence the solution to this problem has to be found in Delhi itself,” Narendra Modi, who had just been anointed the BJP party’s prime ministerial candidate, said while addressing a rally of ex-servicemen in Rewari in 2013.

“The problem will be solved only when a competent and patriotic government is formed at the Centre,” Modi continued, in a speech that promised that India’s military would finally be given its due.

To his credit, the BJP manifesto that was released a year later was ambitious: India would become a defence manufacturing hub, a new defence policy would be released, bureaucratic and inefficient procurement would be restructured, and the modernisation of India’s military equipment and weaponry, often stymied by corruption and incompetence, would move at a fast pace.

Manohar Parrikar’s tenure as defence minister – after the recent assembly elections he’s now headed off to become Goa’s chief minister again – got off to a rather inauspicious start. He was, strangely, appointed as defence minister almost six months after the Modi government actually assumed power. Finance minister Arun Jaitley initially handled defence until November 2014 – a five-month period in which most ministry officials and industry executives agree that most issues relating to the defence sector were hardly touched.

Competency and patriotism

Over the last fifteen months, however, Parrikar has tried his best to embody the two key issues that Modi apparently felt were needed to rejig India’s defence industry, with varying amounts of success.

Industry observers point out that Parrikar walked in with hope and confidence: his past experience with DRDO as an entrepreneur neatly positioned himself somewhere between being a consummate insider (always a terrible thing in the India’s defence industry) and a total outsider (also potentially disastrous).

The achievements he leaves behind are meaty, if slightly underwhelming or flawed: the delivery of OROP (One Rank, One Pension), a new defence procurement policy, a new vendor blacklisting policy, and a great deal of focus and attention on indigenising India’s military equipment ecosystem.

And yet, others would rightfully point out that Parrikar has often over-promised and under-delivered. As soon as he became defence minister, he promised that a new blacklisting policy, with heavy financial penalties, would be out within a month. It actually took the defence ministry a year and resulted in a policy, that while encouraging, received a decidedly mixed reception.

In July 2016, he promised that the pièce de résistance of the defence sector’s ‘Make-in-India’ project – the strategic partnership model – would be formulated within a month. The strategic partnership policy, a contentious issue that has been bitterly debated within the defence ministry, was expected to kick-start billions of dollars worth of manufacturing projects. Nearly a year later, it still hasn’t been released, much to the puzzlement of both Indian and foreign companies. Sources tell The Wire that its delay is due to within the ministry, with many bureaucrats feeling that the inherent favouritism of the policy cannot easily be sold to the PMO and the Cabinet Committee on Security.

Parrikar’s new defence procurement policy, released in early 2016, tips its hat towards boosting indigenous content in India’s weaponry and jump-starting local defence manufacturing. However, as multiple commentators have pointed out, the voluminous tome is ultimately not the work of a reformist. As journalist Ajai Shukla points out, “it remains a weightlifter’s tool and a bureaucrat’s delight, filled with opportunities for delaying the acquisition of vitally needed equipment”.

What explains the difference between Parrikar’s public statements, and his intent, to what his ministry has been able to accomplish? One explanation certainly is that the byzantine bureaucracy of the defence ministry is not easily surpassed. Indeed, multiple government officials point out that at each step of the way, Parrikar has had to work with secretaries and bureaucrats who were steadfastly opposed to the internal logic (in some cases rightly, in some cases not so much) of many of his decisions.

Committee and panel man

It’s not clear whether Parrikar’s style of functioning tended towards setting up a number of third-party panels and committees, or whether it was an attempt at bypassing his ministry’s bureaucrats. At the end of his tenure, there are still nearly half-a-dozen committees still functioning. Four other panels submitted their recommendations on various issues in the last six months. What do all of these committees do? They examine various issues or possible reforms including contentious issues such as the ‘strategic partnership policy’ or the security flaws exposed by the Pathankot attack.

Some of these committees were obscenely far-sighted. The latest one, according to sources, was a report that recommended that an autonomous body be set up outside the defence ministry that would help speed up procurements for the Indian army’s modernisation process. The defence ministry acknowledged this particular report a few days ago, but it remains to be seen how Jaitley will view the report’s suggestions.

“How many of these recommendations issued by various panels and task forces will be taken to their logical end by Jaitley or whoever is Parrikar’s successor? Very difficult to say,” a former defence industry executive, who participated in two of the committees, told The Wire.

Make-in-India and patriotism

Industry and government officials that nearly half of a minister’s work is in the message he sends and the manner in which he functions. In this aspect, most agree that Parrikar successfully talked up Modi’s vision of reducing defence imports, boosting indigenisation and modernising military equipment.

“He had no problems going out, meeting different companies and the heads of various companies. This was something his UPA predecessor was perhaps a little wary about. Parrikar on the other hand regularly sent out teams of officials to various countries. He also managed some of the tension in defence ties between Russia and India very well. Definitely, the intent, backed by the prime minister, was there,” a senior Indian industry executive, who declined to be identified, said.

While Parrikar’s motivations may have been sound, which goes a long way in constructing the right atmosphere, his end-results are often less successful. As The Wire has reported, India will end this financial year with less than $2 million in foreign direct investment in the defence sector. In fact, the $2 million figure also embarrassingly applies for the total amount of FDI defence inflows over the last three years! Make-in-India, as it applies to the defence industry, is still a distant goal. Parrikar may have taken important (if baby) steps, but his eventual successor will still have to do much heavy-lifting.

Where the defence minister perhaps succeeded more was in his comments on patriotism and the rightful place of India’s military. In the last fifteen months, Parrikar heavily politicised the infamous surgical strikes, alluded to insider knowledge of the Snapdeal-Aamir Khan episode and even questioned India’s “no first-use policy”. As Manoj Joshi points out, while Parrikar is a fairly decent and well-meaning man, his legendary verbal gaffes are a symptom of the larger mood and agenda the Modi government has set.

End-result and deliverables

There are no doubt, certain areas where Parrikar has promised action and simply failed. Days after becoming raksha mantri, he announced that he would reduce “terrorist infiltration across the Line of Control (LoC)”. This clearly hasn’t happened. And worse, just last week, a parliamentary panel slammed the defence ministry and stated that “no concrete measures had been taken to beef up security in frontline military bases” even after the Uri and Pathankot attacks.

This criticism comes embarrassingly after a panel by Lt-Gen Philip Campose was set up to review existing security infrastructure and another task force by former home secretary Madhukar Gupta was set up to study flaws in India’s border management. These sort of lapses, one government official says, call into question Parrikar’s ability to effectively push through decisions that need to be taken.

The modernisation, and indeed the acquisition of basic military equipment, also is not yet complete. In this regard, industry watchers say, Parrikar can’t be wholly blamed because he’s dealing with untangling an extremely incompetent and corrupt legacy. Consider the Indian army’s  aborted quest to buy much-needed close-quarter carbines. The tender was initially issued in 2010 and technical trials were held in 2013, before Parrikar’s time. This process, which Parrikar had to clean up, resulted in a single-vendor outcome, with allegations of “deviations” in the initial tender. This issue saw Parrikar’s junior minister (Rao Inderjit Singh) go head-to-head with senior defence ministry officials before Singh was shifted out of the ministry.’

Parrikar was eventually forced to scrap and re-issue the carbine tender in 2016. Industry officials point out that these sort of legacy mess-ups are what Parrikar had to deal with and while he could have done a more efficient job, it was a difficult task. Has Parrikar transformed  India’s tender and procurement process and made it more efficient though? There’s no clear consensus amongst industry officials, although most would lean towards the negative.

As one former defence ministry official put it, “Parrikar has cleared some of the weeds surrounding India’s defence industry. It’s important, but the next minister has the unenviable task of finishing that job and then starting to actually planting the seeds.”