Cut your coat according to your cloth. That’s the loud and clear message Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has sent out to the three armed forces. In less than six months after taking over, Parrikar has studied various complex issues dogging the Defence Ministry and has come to his own conclusions on what needs to be done. By his own admission, Parrikar spent the first four months as defence minister taking inputs from a range of experts both within and outside the MoD before making up his mind.
The first thing he said he realised, was the mismatch that existed between various acquisition plans of the three armed forces and the availability of funds. “Many grand plans were made without taking the budget into consideration,” he told me.
During a couple of on-camera and off-camera (but on record) conversations, Parrikar talked to me about how the planning for the much-touted Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) was faulty. “The need for acquiring an offensive capability against the Chinese was projected (and sanctioned) but not the funds. I will not go into who is responsible for this faulty planning and projection but the fact is, they (the army) was using war reserves to equip the Mountain Strike Corps. Fortunately, we realised the mistake early and I can assure you that the reserves have not depleted to a level where it can be termed alarming. After a review, we have realised that the MSC will have to be frozen at a point where it is now..”
Later, in another interview to Hindustan Times, he confirmed the actual figures. “I have frozen the cost at Rs 38,000 crore over the next eight years. It will consist of 35,000 men,” the Defence Minister said. So from 70,000 men and Rs 88,000 crore, Parrikar has made the Army cut the size of the MSC down to almost 50 percent. And rightly so, since funds are not infinite.
Indeed, the biggest example of Parrikar’s dictum is the decision on the purchase of 36 Rafale combat jets from France. “The Air Force may want 126 Rafales and I may want to give them 500 but where are the funds? We have to be realistic. So why not go for LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) Tejas, Mark II made in India which will save us some money and give a boost to the indigenous aerospace industry? At the same time, we understood that the IAF needed the Rafale jets, so I went to the Prime Minister, who took a very bold political decision. This proves that important acquisitions have to be made at the government-to-government level,” he said.
Rafale and MSC are two big ticket items that have been cut down according to the availability of funds, but in his review, Parrikar also found that the bureaucracy in the ministry — both civil and military — was sitting on some 400-odd big and small projects that are critical to the three armed forces. Without getting into details, he said, “The first thing I did was to look at projects that are stuck at various stages of clearances since the most common complaint across the board was ‘nothing moves’ in the MoD.” A thorough review revealed that nearly one-third of the 400-odd projects were now irrelevant. So they were discarded. About 50 projects were accelerated since they were of critical importance.
The next step was to prioritise the projects. Over the past month, Parrikar and his closest aides have managed to identify critical schemes across the three services that needed immediate funding and implementation. The purchase of 50,000 bullet proof jackets, for instance, was sanctioned on a fast track basis once it was realised that troops involved in counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency operations were facing a severe shortage. Similarly, a small bureaucratic standoff had held up supply of Extreme High Altitude Clothing (for soldiers posted in Siachen and similar terrain) for more than two years. Parrikar personally intervened and resolved the issue, he said.
But more than anything else, the former Goa Chief Minister seems to have brought in a sense of purpose in the notoriously risk-averse MoD. Without directly criticising India’s longest serving Defence Minister AK Antony, Parrikar said that the ministry was rudderless for a long period. “There was no control over the system. There were no reviews, no feedback and there was no fear of punishment for non-performance. An important ministry like Defence cannot run like this,” Parrikar remarked. Elsewhere too he has spoken on how ineffective supervision led to the mess that the three armed forces find themselves in. A case in point is the freedom and impunity with which the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) operated in recent times, not meeting deadlines, obfuscating performance and delaying critical projects for the IAF. Under Parrikar however, HAL and other leading defence Public Sector Undertakings are now subject to fortnightly reviews and so is the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Perform or perish is the new mantra in the defence ministry.
The bottom line, according to the minister, an IIT Powai graduate and a voracious reader, is that people elect politicians to take a firm decisions. “Out of let’s say 10 decisions I take, five may be good, two may be average and three may turn out to be big mistakes but as long as the decisions are taken in good faith, I am willing to take them,” Parrikar told me. It’s an attitude that is not only refreshing but also reassuring. But his job has only begun. As I wrote earlier, the defence minister has a steep mountain to climb. He has only taken the first few steps towards ascending the summit.
(First published here: http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/standpoint-perform-or-perish-is-the-new-mantra-in-the-defence-ministry-2078241)