“Boss wants four ACs, please get it done fast.”
Upendra Joshi, Officer on Special Duty to Raksha Mantri Manohar Parrikar, was expecting someone else when this reporter entered his room to introduce himself in late 2014.
Eager to strike a conversation, I asked in Hindi, “What happened? Have they put fewer ACs than required?” He laughed and said “boss”, as Parrikar’s staff called him, found out that there were 12 air conditioners in the house and wanted the number to be brought down to just four.
This wasn’t something expected from the defence minister of the country. I certainly had a different opinion about leaders up until then based on what was seen and heard about the whims and fancies of Indian politicians.
Joshi took this reporter along to the minister’s office for an introduction. Dressed in a pair of grey pants, blue shirt, and his trademark leather sandals, Parrikar stood up and asked this reporter to sit.
The conversation lasted for less than 10 minutes, and the only takeaway from that meeting was the realisation that Parrikar was a simple, yet an intelligent man.
Over the course of the next weeks and months, this reporter met the then defence minister numerous times — at his office, at his residence and, of course, at various events.
Of love of fish and pens
The first time I went to Parrikar’s house, I was very surprised to see that it was sparsely done up. Another surprise was that Joshi, along two other members of the defence minister’s team, stayed at Parrikar’s residence till they got their own homes in the national capital.
Parrikar loved his fish and often hosted meals where the star attraction was always the Goan Fish Curry.
In March 2016, during the Defence Exhibition in Goa, he drove down to the hotel where this reporter and some other journalists were staying. Parrikar treated the group to what he called the “authentic Goa cuisine”.
A common interest for both the Raksha Mantri and this reporter were pens, and the minister often discussed the particular brands that he liked and owned.
“Don’t ever think these are pens gifted to me by someone,” Parrikar used to say while mentioning the date and place of the purchase.
Of RSS, Left and humour
Once, this reporter happened to travel to Goa with the Raksha Mantri in a commercial airline. With no idea that the minister was traveling on the same flight, I spotted him only while he was getting off the bus along with other passengers.
During the flight, I walked over to him and asked whether I could sit next to the minister. Parrikar immediately asked his staff to swap seats.
Over the next hour, a number of issues came up, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the then ongoing “beef controversy”. He came across as a liberal.
I joked that Parrikar was a “Leftist in the RSS”, to which the minister went on to explain the commonalities, and of course the differences, between the Bharatiya Janata Party’s parent organisation and the Left.
Parrikar was a man known for his wit. He loved cracking jokes and often got into trouble with the media for the same.
Of Goa trips and achievements
This reporter saw various sides to him during the period he was India’s defence minister. From the simple man that he often appeared, Parrikar could turn into someone extremely calculative without batting an eyelid.
He single-handedly brought the Indian Air Force (IAF) around to revive the programme and induct the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas — among his biggest achievements as Raksha Mantri.
The ‘controversial’ Rafale deal has stayed in conversation in the last few months, but Parrikar was a hard negotiator. He can be credited, or criticised, for the delay in signing the defence contract.
The French often used to joke about Parrikar’s negotiations. And they were certainly taken aback with some of the strict conditions put forward by Parrikar’s ministry, including the 50 per cent offset clause.
The Raksha Mantri also used to lament about the bureaucratic procedure within the ministry, and often took the bureaucrats head on, assuming personal responsibility for many decisions.
One big setback for him was his inability to clear some of the reforms that he wanted to bring about in the defence ministry. There’s no doubt that he left without getting to make some of the crucial decisions, including the strategic partnership model.
But then, Parrikar was never the typical Delhi politician.
During a conversation with this reporter once, Parrikar said the media unfairly criticised him for his weekend trips to Goa.
“Have you ever thought that my friends and family are in Goa. I am the defence minister only now. I don’t go to any social gathering in Delhi as everyone wants to be friends with me not because of the person I am but because of who I am.”
Whatever be the case, the sense this reporter got from Parrikar, as he prepared to go back to Goa as chief minister in 2017, was that he was doing so with joy, relief and guilt, but also a hint of despair.