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.
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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.
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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.
Also read: Nirmala Sitharaman is India’s first woman FinMin but has little time to rest on that laurel
India needs very, very strong Armed Forces with ample funds to ensure good performance. We cannot waste our money on non-productive expenses and starve the defence forces of proper budgets.
Let us stop:
1) Building unnecessary statues. These are unproductive and cost THOUSANDS of crores.
2) Stop needless advertisements in the puppydog (HMV) newspapers. These too cost THOUSANDS of crores
3) Stop unnecessary and frivolous foreign jaunts in fancy clothing. This also costs THOUSANDS of crores.
4) Stop all government funding of cow shelters. These can be taken care of by animal protection NGOs. Again thousands saved.
Our Armed Forces need to be strong to defend our country. We cannot have them using defective ammunition and old, obsolete aircraft and rickety ships!
Give our valiant soldiers, flyers and sailors the BEST!!!
While defence ministry needs a lot of hard work by the Raksha Mantri, one has to wait and see what Rajnath will deliver. He may be a man with no enemies, mature and cool headed but one can hardly recall any worthwhile initiative in home ministry during his tenure. Police reform, naxal problem, BSF ITBP issues have remained unresolved. Assuming he has full political backing of the PM, he needs suport of strong domain experts in technical and military areas to aid his decision making. Someone like Gen Syed Atta Hussain or Gen Hooda and some retired DRDO scientists should be appointed as advisors to him. The list of pending action points is quite long and he needs to get going soonest.
As a journalist in charge of defense issues you do not think outside the box. Reading your articles gives the impression of reading a press release like those published on the MOD website. There is a new configuration which could, because of the former functions of the current MOD, allow for an economy of means between the forces divided between the Ministry of the Interior and the Minister of Defense. But this remains to be seen given the current incumbent of the Ministry of the Interior. But beyond that, no serious reform seems possible without a total reorganization of the MOD with the creation of a general secretariat of the defense administration, the creation of a secretary general for armaments, not to mention creating the post of Chief of Defense Staff. These are immediate reforms that could breathe new life into the defense sector and shake up this administration where we work vertically and where no one is responsible. The question is: can the new MOD holder be for India what Mc Namara has been for the reorganization of the US defense sector, which has many contradictions in the early 1960s?
Raksha Mantri can look forward to a full tenure of five years. That allows worthwhile initiatives to bear fruit, for the period to be seen as a success. The issue of defence procurement, keeping it free of controversy, avoiding inordinate delays between a requirement being crystallised and delivery being made, ensuring that more of the budget is spent in India in rupees, with both PSUs and private firms adding to local content / manufacture is something where Shri Rajnath Singh can make a mark and lasting contribution. All this has to be done at a time of the defence budget growing slowly, barely keeping pace with inflation, with personnel costs, including pension, claiming too high a proportion. 2. Defence holds an immense land bank. If a completely transparent, glitch free process can be followed to sell parts of it each year, those funds could be fully earmarked for a non lapseable corpus used for capital acquisitions for the defence forces.
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