New Delhi: Rajnath Singh took over as India’s new defence minister Saturday — the first full-time heavyweight to occupy the chair in a while.
The outgoing defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman was widely perceived as a fairly lightweight minister and seen more as a stop gap arrangement till the Lok Sabha elections, with most decisions being taken by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office directly.
While former defence minister Manohar Parrikar was respected by both the bureaucracy and the armed forces, he was much lower down in the pecking order within the government, despite being a Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) minister, and within the BJP.
As the new minister takes charge, ThePrint looks at five issues that Nirmala Sitharaman left behind for Rajnath Singh.
Decisions on cantonment, education fee
The rank and file of the armed forces were beginning to say that their sentiments were not being taken on board when it came to crucial decision-making processes within the ministry — be it the decision to open up cantonment roads to capping education expense paid for martyrs’ children.
While the ceiling on education fee was removed, the opening up of cantonment roads continues to be an issue, especially with the family members.
There is an increasing fear that land sharks are eyeing the cantonments. Rajnath Singh’s deft handling of complex issues and years of experience as an administrator will be put to test here as he will have to allay the fears.
Handling turf war between civil and uniformed personnel
One of the most open secrets in the defence ministry is the turf battle between the civilian bureaucracy and the uniformed personnel. There is a perception that the latter are being belittled.
The whole controversy, which started during Parrikar’s term, of functional equivalence of armed forces’ officers with respect to their civilian counterparts in the Armed Forces Headquarters has left the uniformed personnel bitter.
Though Sitharaman did withdraw the letter which created a ruffle, the forces feel that the battle is still not over.
Singh will have to go the extra mile to assure that the uniformed personnel that their interests will be looked into even as he keeps the civilian bureaucracy happy.
More defence reforms
Rajnath Singh will have to implement Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision to have an agile, integrated and modern armed force.
Singh’s priority list will include launching big ticket reforms in the defence sector, enabling Make in India, creating the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and integrating operations for the three services and theatre commands.
This will involve deft handling with each service having its own competing arguments and reservations.
Transforming DRDO, OFBs, HAL, shipyards and defence PSUs
While procurement and acquisition process will continue to be a focus, Singh will have to put his mind on transforming the monolithic Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), badly performing Ordnance Factory Boards (OFBs), Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), shipyards and other defence PSUs.
Unfortunately, not much work has gone into this sphere. DRDO needs to be made to focus only on core defence technology.
The Army has already raised a red flag over the high number of accidents taking place due to poor and defective quality of ammunition being supplied for tanks, artillery, air defence and other guns by the OFBs.
Mired in controversy amid a declining bank balance and sheer lack of quality, the state-run HAL too needs a revamp, besides the defence shipyards and PSUs.
Ensuring information flow
Parrikar had once famously said that while he would love to talk, defence ministry works differently. However, he did ensure that there was proper information flow on defence policies and decisions.
The tenure of Sitharaman saw a severe dearth of information flow, which was embarrassingly evident during the Rafale controversy, and the Balakot operation and the subsequent air operations by Pakistan.
It took two full days for the defence establishment to wake up to the information warfare unleashed by Pakistan post the Balakot air strikes in February. That move also came after prodding from the PMO.
The Rafale controversy earlier this year was another example when the information flow from the ministry was at its lowest.
It was thanks to the excellent briefings given by the Parrikar regime that most defence journalists could put things into perspective when the onslaught against the fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force began.