The appointment of Nirmala Sitharaman as India’s defence minister created ripples on more counts than one. She is the first full-time woman minister who occupies the hallowed office. Her appointment confirmed the resolve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to respect merit and performance, more so as she is a relatively junior politician. In the hype that indirectly reinforces Modi’s commitment towards women’s empowerment and gender equality, I read urgency in seeking a “hands-on commitment” for addressing the challenges faced by the armed forces. Progress on this front, a focus area of the present government, has been slow. The government made the right noises and initiated baby steps to mitigate the existing deficiencies in ammunition and shortfall/upgrade of critical weapon systems. It also took steps to facilitate a vibrant “defence ecosystem”, a pre-requisite for achieving self-sufficiency in the manufacture of big ticket items, including guns, submarines and aircraft. The previous defence minister did a great job despite his political compulsions. But good intentions were subsumed by archaic procurement processes, apathy and a lack of understanding in the bureaucracy.
The apprehensions voiced regarding a woman steering the tradition-steeped and formal armed forces are totally misplaced. History is replete with examples of unprecedented military successes achieved with women at the helm. In our case, we have the success story of the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict that resulted in the birth of Bangladesh. Yes, the armed forces will take some time to get used to a woman defence minister. The minister too has her task cut out. Going by the ethos of the armed forces, she will have to take the first step and prepare the environment for interactions with the uniformed fraternity. Seeing her frank and free approach to discussion, however, I see this issue being resolved amicably.
What needs to be looked at more closely are the challenges she is likely to face in running the defence ministry. Her methodical approach, perseverance and capacity for hard work, reflected in her handling of the commerce ministry, are a big plus. Her real task, however, will be to appreciate the complexities of the three services and the interplay of OFB-DPSUs-DRDO (Ordnance Factories Board-Defence Public Sector Units-Defence Research and Development Organisation) in India’s quest for self-reliance and indigenisation in weaponry.
The focus on the MoD is such that decisions taken or not taken could go viral on social or visual media and create pressures. The defence minister will have to retain the dexterity and informality to be empowered by periodic briefings on evolving situations along the active borders with Pakistan and China, internal security commitments in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast, and so on. The TRP-driven visual media will create emergencies across myriad spectrums. Unfortunately, a majority of the senior bureaucrats in the MoD, including the defence secretary, are also recent inductees. This may have a bearing on the time taken by the new minister in settling into her job.
Unlike in other ministries, experience in dealing with matters military is necessary for bureaucrats to develop trust and appreciate the nuances in the functioning of the armed forces. If they differ on perceptions regarding priorities, it could cause impediments in the smooth running of the ministry. Structural and procedural issues already plaguing the ministry could also have a negative impact. The reforms announced by the outgoing defence minister amount to a new paradigm. They have financial overtones and their implementation may be time consuming. Therefore, changes must be initiated only after workable alternatives are found.
Hopefully, a minister whose sole responsibility is the running of the defence ministry will ensure that issues are addressed in a holistic and timely manner. Patience and an eye for detail are necessary to review the existing procurement processes and measures to give shape to the “Make in India” initiative. There is a need to be disruptive in thought and action as the efforts in this direction till now have been sub-optimal. Simultaneously, the private sector needs to be re-assured that there is space and place for them in nation-building: The government must convey its resolve that a level-playing field will be provided to them vis a vis the DPSUs. She will have to be dogged in both intention and attitude to break the existing barriers and accelerate the changes promised by the government. The importance of the defence industry needs no emphasis for it will enhance our security imperatives, provide jobs and inject a feeling of national pride.
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