The 17th day of the third month of 2019 marked a grim day for the nation. It was marked by the passing of Mr Manohar Parrikar. A stubborn political figure who, fledgling as a young member of the legislative assembly of Goa, through to serving as the Chief Minister of the same coastal state, (on more than one occasion!) polarized bureaucrats and the masses, alike. Every action of his, political and otherwise, was met with a dichotomy of sorts, with lobbies supporting him staunchly, and crusaders opposing him with equivocal gusto.
But Manohar Parrikar, born as Manohar Gopalkrishna Prabhu Parrikar in Mapusa, Bardez, was a pioneer in his own right. An alumnus of the prestigious IIT-Powai, he was the first alumnus to serve as a Chief Minister, and as a Defence Minister. And it is the latter, which I plan to dissect and conjecture about. Throwback to November 2014, when a hesitant Parrikar assumed office under PM Modi’s National Democratic Alliance, sworn in as India’s 27th Defence Minister. He flagged off his tenure at a glacially slow, yet boisterous spree. He was seemingly innocuous in the beginning, with many naysayers doubting his theories and cabinet capabilities.
The most favourable point in his favour, fuelling his political afterburners, was the fact that India had recently emerged from under the red-tape(d) darkness of the United (Non-) Progressive Alliance, marred by its regressive procurement policies and lack of adequate fund allocation, thereof. In short, rockbottom had already been accomplished. Taking full political advantage of the situation, he made headlines with the advocacy of Make-in-India, in an attempt to indigenize and internalize the armament ecosystem. He literally opened up the Defence Acquisition Council, to help streamline and inject flexibility into the policy system of procurement. Maybe all this to do with his prior experience of working with the Defence Research and Development Organization. Whatever be the case, a resultant of this, was the in-principle go ahead for 200+ aerial defence weapons, integrated weapons systems including unmanned aerial vehicles and radars, and weapons and sensor packages for the indigenous, Mazgaon-made Shivalik-class stealth frigates. And after years of dithering, he ensured that the HAL-borne light combat aircraft Tejas, would find its place in the fighter family of the IAF, to eventually, as devised, phase out the senescent MiG-21s (still, a distant dream!). As discussed in my previous column, he was also instrumental in the operational go-ahead on the Dassault Rafales, which, unfortunately, are light years away from operational inclusion, readiness and preparedness.
In one of his first public appearances after taking charge, he issued a statement – “Until those who inflict damage on others experience the same pain, they don’t change (sic).” He propagated that we give Pakistan ‘a taste of their own medicine’, and that asymmetric warfare could not be fought using convention. That belligerents like her would engage our military resources through a chronic, indefinite and inconclusive battle, thus ‘bleeding us with a million cuts’. That we would need an indirect approach to combat Pakistan, somewhat like the inception and execution of the (unconventional) Rashtriya Rifles, many, many years back. That a country with a frail government but a strong military could hit, with the element of radical surprise, using to full potential, the fanaticism and feudalism which spews. It was only befitting, that he neared the completion of his tenure with a literal bang, by being an operational faction of the think-tank that ‘surgically’ struck militant outfits in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, precisely eleven days after the Uri attack. The perfect answer to the asymmetry. The perfect retaliation. The perfect closure.
Mr Parrikar also amassed some non-operational feathers to his proverbial hat. He was a key player in the long-awaited delivery of the much-hyped OROP scheme – ‘One Rank, One Pension’, for serving personnel and veterans. He actively focused on gender sensitivity in the forces, and was known to be a vocal proponent of the induction of women through sainik school and military academies, in forefront combatant capacities and roles. He spoke of the formation of an ‘All-women-combat-battalion’, so very reminiscent of Netaji and his famous Jhansi-ki-rani companies, et al. It was only fair that he formally commissioned the maiden (pun-intended) fighter pilot trio of (Flt Lts) Avani, Mohana and Bhawana.
Enough said. Like, literally. Unfortunately, Parrikar’s tenure also had a flip side. It endured its fair share of downs. For starters, the first five months of his reign saw no movement, no progress, and only a play of words and hardly any action. In fact, insiders say that he did not even know the rank structures of the three regular branches. I will not even begin to mention the territorial army, coast guard, and so on. The defence procurement policy, pipped as a reform of sorts, though meticulous and exhaustive, falls flat on its face due to the many loopholes it shelters. Industry officials have criticized it, citing major failures, a prime example being the carbine deal. Even the indigenous enabling, ‘Buy Indian – Make in India’ hasn’t really delivered. On paper, it was set to change the course of manufacturing history. Alas, the light combat aircraft hangs in limbo, with a ready, fully tested and airworthy prototype; It’s dreams of replacing the four-decade-old-workhorse remain all, but a possibility, as on date. Neither have our hangars and runways seen the much-awaited Rafales, evidenced by the fact that we put our money on a Bison to fight back, in the aftermath of the second surgical strike, a few weeks back. Nor has the line of control seen a significant security ‘beef-up’, which was one of the first few public promises made by the IIT-ian, in the aftermath of Pathankot and Uri. There is no shred of doubt, that Mr Parrikar, on more instances than one, overpromised and underdelivered. Whether this slip between the cup of promises, and the lip of tangible results is owing to internal differences, bureaucratic failure, the claws of corruption, or a simple executional failure to push decisions through, effectively, is debatable. But true. And in situ.
As for me, the setting and imagery are still fresh. That of Mr Parrikar, full of poise and conviction, taking his time to divide his characteristic magnetic glasses, before delivering this iconic statement “A terrorist coming to India should not expect human rights; If required, we will neutralize terrorists with terrorists. Our army of 13 lakhs is not to preach peace (sic)”.
He passed away, regrettably, from complications arising from metastatic pancreatic cancer, at the age of 63. The dichotomy of how he fared, objectively and subjectively, as a Raksha Mantri, I shall leave to your (biased?) interpretation.
I will also leave you with some food for thought. Why we, despite checking all the boxes – having a technically qualified, learned, and seemingly honest boss calling the shots, defence forces with fight capabilities and a military prowess, that nations can only dream to have, cannot break free from the shackles of a lacuna-riddled, byzantine administration, and emerge (much) stronger than we really are. Jaihind.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are wholly and solely mine. I am entitled to my opinion, and you have a right to ignore it. And no, I’m not aligned, nor am I a populist, left or right winger, or a liberal. I’m bang in the middle – unapologetically APOLITICAL.