Let me begin on an optimistic note by first and foremost pointing out that India’s long wait for a full time woman defence minister is finally over. India now finally has a first full time woman defence minister who has got off with a promising start. It is a matter of deep regret that in the last few years India did not have a full time defence minister. Those manning it were just not interested in the job. But now it seems that things have finally changed.
We saw earlier how the meetings of the service chiefs and defence secretary with the defence minister took place after a long time say few days or few months. But all this has now ended. The new Defence mInister Nirmala Sitharaman has made it absolutely clear that she would hold daily meetings with all the three defence service chiefs and the defence secretary in order to have quick decision making in the ministry, and special emphasis has been laid on acquisitions as India is falling short on several parameters on a range of military equipments.
Interestingly enough, the official statement said that the defence minister who took charge has held a number of meetings with senior officials to familiarize with the activities and functioning of the Defence Ministry and has already issued clear directions on critical issues. She has laid special emphasis on the need to step up the pace of acquisition proposals. She has also decided to hold meetings of the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), the highest decision making body on defence procurement in the ministry which is chaired by the minister every fortnight.
It may be recalled here that usually the meetings of DAC were held once in a month, though at times the gap between two meetings have been longer. A whole range of meetings have been scheduled with the Army, Air Force and Navy Chiefs to review defence preparedness and allied issues of strategic interests, and the minister will now meet the three Chiefs as well as the Defence Secretary every day to facilitate ‘quick decision making’. Other areas of focus would be settling all outstanding land related issues for infrastructure projects and matters pertaining to the welfare of defence personnel and their families.
After taking over, she had said that she would be a round the clock Defence Minister and has since then also visited Goa, Rajasthan and Gujarat. She made it clear that her priorities were military preparedness, ‘Make in India’ and welfare of soldiers and their families. She eloquently said that, “My priority will definitely be the armed forces preparedness. It is important that the Indian armed forces receive attention in terms of giving them every equipment and equipment necessary for them to perform their duty with the best of equipment available”.
It cannot be lightly dismissed that the biggest reason why India lost the 1962 war was the lack of defence equipment with the armed forces. I am glad to note here that the new Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has vowed to address it right at the start of her tenure! She should never allow red tapism to come in the way of modernization of our armed forces by providing them with the latest defence equipments necessary to fight and win a war.
I am also happy to note that Sitharaman has very rightly emphasized on ‘Make in India’. Talking of India’s defence capabilities, she rightly laid emphasis on having a major role for ‘Make in India’ in our defence production. She waxed eloquent to make it clear that, “We shalkl ensure that the important characters of what makes ‘Make in India’ an important flagship programme of the Prime Minister is given full play for defence production because India as you know is very big defence equipment procurer.” No doubt, her priorities are certainly on the right track.
She must ensure that projects worth over Rs two lakh crores cleared by the NDA government since it came to power in 2014 take off in the right earnest to address all the needs. One of these projects is building six submarines within the country under the Strategic Partnership. The cost of this proposed contract is worth over Rs 60,000 crores.
More importantly, she will also have to accord priority to address the issue of shortage of arms and ammunition as the Army has ammunition for only ten days to fight an intense war. This is something that can shame us if we have to fight a long war especially with a more powerful adversary like China with whom we just recently witnessed 73 days stand-off at Doklam! In fact, the Comptroller and Auditor Gneral (CAG) in its report tabled in the recently concluded monsoon session of Parliament also flagged its concern over the critical shortage.
It is most unfortunate that she has been made Defence Minister after NDA government has completed more than 3 years in power. Had she been appointed right at the beginning she could have done a lot more than what she can do right now! Anyway, let the past bury its dead.
What has worked brilliantly in her favour and compelled Modi to reinduct her as Defence Minister is her outstanding performance in the portfolio she held earlier about which I would not like to elaborate much due to dearth of space but which is known to all of us. Given the long gestation period before defence contracts are finalized, she will have to hit the ground running as she has only one and half years to get things done before the five year tenure of the NDA regime ends in 2019. But right from the day she took over, she has made it clear that she is a serious fighter who does not believe in dishing out excuses for non-performance!
Reaching out to armed forces personnel, she said soldiers perform their duties at the “toughest borders” and it would be her endeavour to ensure their welfare as well as of their families. They should remain absolutely sure that their interests will be protected. She pointed out that, “Let us not for a moment forget that it is in their welfare, in their families welfare that we can ensure that the soldier at the very toughest borders, challenging zones in which they are protecting this country remain absolutely assured that their interests are being taken care of.”
While speaking at an event organized by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), she said it was a privilege to hand over indigenous products on her first engagement after assuming office. The DRDO event, which also was attended by Home Minister Rajnath Singh saw the handing over of armoured bus, bullet proof jacket, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and small arms among others to Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs). She said that it was a privilege to hand over indigenous products on her first engagement.
All said and done, Sitharaman has made a promising start. She must ensure that Defence Forces get their due. When PM Modi can spend more than Rs 98,000 crore on bullet train projects which has no bearing on the guarding of borders and making our country safe from external threats then certainly no excuses of lacks of funds should be made for upgrading and completing all such defence projects that are imperative for our national security.
It is here that Sitharaman has to play the key role of persuading PM Modi to always pay heed to the defence and security of the nation which has to be there at the top! She must ensure that all the worthwhile recommendations made by the Shekatkar Committee that was headed by Lt General (retd) DB Shekatkar submitted recently after a lot of painstaking efforts are promptly implemented by herself examining the same independently and not just accepting what her predecessor Arun Jaitley accepted. Most prominently, the recommendation to have the position of the four-star Chief of Defence Staff who be made the chief single-point adviser to the Defence Minister on military matter must be immediately given effect to which has been neglected till now! It brooks no more delay!
It merits no reiteration that bureaucratic needling and meddling time and again by bureaucrats who don’t have any ground experience of fighting war that results ultimately in red tapism must be promptly reined in and armed forces must be rightfully given the final say in deciding what they need the most to win a war! Also, the allocation of budget for defence must be significantly raised, more money should be spent in developing the infrastructure on border areas with China and Pakistan and simultaneously it must be ensured that the amount allocated is not returned unused! Only then can our borders be safe from all kinds of threats. I am cent percent sure that the new Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is fully aware of all this and her bold decision to daily meet all service chiefs along with defence secretary bears testimony to this!
By Sanjeev Sirohi