What Nirmala Sitharaman must do for the armed forces

Her appointment as full-time defence minister comes at a crucial time for the military.

 |  4-minute read |   03-09-2017
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Nirmala Sitharaman, India's second woman defence minister, Indira Gandhi being the first, assumes her appointment this week. Like her predecessors, she would have limited knowledge about the functioning of the military. The three service chiefs and the defence secretary would spend time, slowly taking her through the drill, enabling her to comprehend the complexities of military power and its application in the regional and global context.

Though she has headed an independent portfolio and proved her mettle, she needs to be determined to bring about the much needed improvement in the system, especially as she assumes her appointment in the midst of path-breaking events. Her experience in handling industry and commerce would benefit her as the military seeks enhanced cooperation in defence-industry partnerships.

The appointment comes post the termination of the tense standoff in Doklam, where disengagement occurred after 74 days. It is also when the Army has begun gaining the upper hand in the Valley, post the elimination of more than 130 militants this year. The fact that normalcy is around the bend was evident when the home minister made an announcement of visiting Jammu and Kashmir for three days, seeking to meet all sections of society for talks, including in the Valley, during his planned visit in the second week of September.

orop_090317082514.jpgThe armed forces still have grievances concerning the rank structure when compared to their civilian counterparts, pay and allowances and OROP. Photo: PTI

The period has also witnessed the announcement of implementation of 65 of the accepted 99 recommendations from a total of 188 of the Shekatkar committee. The recommendations ordered for implementation are trivial in nature, as compared to those the government even fears to consider. The committee had made major recommendations for revamping higher defence management in India, to bring it at par with international standards, optimising the employment of combat potential and making the ministry of defence (MoD) accountable and responsive to the armed forces' demands, apart from downsizing many deadwood organisations under it.

The armed forces still have grievances concerning the rank structure when compared to their civilian counterparts, pay and allowances and OROP. It is only a dedicated and full-time defence minister who would be able to spare time and understand these challenges. Morale is impacted when forces are side-lined. The chiefs have only the defence minister to explain these shortcomings to, hence a permanent incumbent is essential.

The Navy is seeking to enhance its capacity and capability to counter the growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and desperately needs to fast-track its modernisation. The Air Force is on the verge of finalising its post-Rafale plans, with many manufacturers lining up with offers. For the Army, plans of induction of new artillery are almost through while the contract for the Light Machine Gun has again been cancelled. Shortfalls in war wastage reserves continue to dog the three services, which would need attention. The government has also recently sanctioned an increase of seven Principal Directors (PDs) and 36 posts of director in the Armed Forces HQ (AFHQ) civil service.

This will only enhance resentment between the uniformed and civil cadres and increase bureaucratic control and red tape, rather than being beneficial. The three services operate independently, lacking joint warfare capabilities while joint planning exists only in theory. In simple terms, the armed forces are unprepared for the 21st century.

The remarks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he addressed the Combined Commanders Conference in December 2015 on restructuring higher defence management, defence planning and joint warfare remain just words, with no progress.

The clamour for the demand for appointing a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is rising while the minister's own bureaucrats would suggest otherwise, scared of losing control and power over the ultimate element of power in the country.

Thus, the new defence minister appears to have her task cut out. How far is she willing to go, how much is she willing to change, how much is she willing to push her bureaucrats, only time will tell.

Would she understand the needs and demands of the military or just listen to the yes-men bureaucrats, the nation will realise in a few days.

Would she, like the many before her, pass her time with photo-ops with troops in difficult zones or does she desire to create history by changing the military from one prepared for war in the '90s to one ready for tomorrow?

Would she be devoted to revamping the military or spend time handling her state?

Since former defence minister Manohar Parrikar left for Goa, there has been an adhoc in-charge, who could never seek to make major changes, solely because of his multiple responsibilities. The armed forces desperately need changes, upgradation and making up for shortfalls, tasks which only a permanent incumbent can fulfil.

There is much to do, with little time in the run up to the 2019 elections. If the new defence minister puts her heart and soul into her job, she would be remembered for a lifetime and maybe more, or else she would be just one of them, who came, saw, failed and left.

Rarely has a ministry as important as the MoD been left unattended, but it has happened twice with this government. Hopefully, the new defence minister comes with a positive attitude, seeking to change the system for the better, even if it involves battling her bureaucracy rather than simply using the ministry to project herself favourably.

Also read - Cabinet reshuffle: 10 things you should know

Writer

Harsha Kakar Harsha Kakar @kakar_harsha

The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army and author of the book, Harsha Kakar writes.

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