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30 days on, why does India still not have a full-time Defence Minister?

Wednesday, 2 July 2014 - 1:02pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

The Narendra Modi led BJP won a decisive mandate in the recently concluded election cycle and surpassed even its own wildest dreams when it won 282 seats - a number which went higher with its allies in the NDA. In his campaign, Modi had promised a decisive shift in the way the country was governed. He had been a strong critic of the previous UPA government led by Manmohan Singh. In various speeches he articulated his strong views on many issues, especially those pertaining to national security. He lambasted the UPA government for its tepid response to Pakistani infringements of the ceasefire at the Line of Control and of Chinese incursions into Indian territory. The Sangh Parivar and its political arm, the BJP have long criticised the Congress for not being committed enough to a robust national security policy. They have argued that a BJP government would reverse it to a more muscular national security outlook, thereby giving a decisive shift to India’s posture on matters of defence, especially those related to our neighbourhood.

The verity of this belief of the BJP and its Prime Minister Narendra Modi is debatable. But what cannot be debated is the necessity of a good, strong, capable defence establishment for any strong nation. It was therefore surprising to see that the newly inducted cabinet led by Modi does not have a full time Defence Minister in its midst. Arun Jaitley, the Finance Minister was given the additional charge of the Defence Ministry till a full time minister took charge. Currently, Jaitley is totally preoccupied with his first budget to pay any serious attention to matters of national security. Thus while taking charge, Jaitley suggested that a full time Defence Minister was likely to be appointed in two weeks time. Its been more than a month since.

The Defence Minister is a crucial cog in the state’s apparatus. He (or she) not only handles routine matters related to the defence of the nation but also gives shape to the strategic directions of the government in matters of national security. He provides civilian leadership to the armed forces and helps synergise strategic objectives with operational capabilities of the forces. There are weapon systems and platforms to be bought and myriad other issues which need a long-term vision that only a Defence Minister can provide. For a new government it is one of the most important strategic positions, more so when such a government is led by a Prime Minister who had strongly criticised the previous government’s defence policy.

While Jaitley may do the bare minimum to keep things moving at the Defence Ministry, it is unlikely that he will be able to provide any strategic inputs to our national security set-up. He neither has the time from his primary task of finance minister nor does the Defence Ministry and services believe that he is going to be their boss for long. His inability to handle tricky situations as a hands-off Defence Minister became evident when another minister in Modi’s cabinet attacked the designate Chief of Army Staff, Lt General Dalbir Singh Suhag. It was a shameful incident which conspicuously brought out the absence of a full-time Defence Minister. Can India, with a volatile neighbourhood, afford such a lackadaisical approach? This is a question that hasn’t been asked of Modi yet. 

As with the formation of any new cabinet, Modi’s cabinet too has been surrounded by chatter regarding various positions. Various sources have claimed that Arun Shourie was Modi’s choice for the position of defence minister. But his name was vetoed by Modi’s minders at the RSS. If true, this shows a callous disregard on part of the Sangh Parivar for the defence of the nation which India cannot afford. If Modi was convinced about the suitability of Shourie for this position, then he, riding a wave of public popularity and with a thumping electoral mandate, should have gone ahead with his choice.

Then again, if not Shourie, why not someone else? What has prevented Modi from appointing a full time Defence Minister more than one month after he was sworn in? A closer look at BJP’s ranks gives you the answer. A Defence Minister requires both a strategic vision and administrative acumen, and none in the ranks of the BJP seem to meet the criteria.

Reports of skirmishes with Pakistan at the Line of Control have become routine since the the new government took office. Chinese incursions have taken place in various sectors while they have issued a new map which shows Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as Chinese territory. The troops at the border are ably led by the officers, but they also need the reassuring political leadership of a defence minister behind them to give them confidence. India lives in a neighbourhood that is currently in turmoil, with a nuclear-armed Pakistan fighting the jehadis as NATO forces start to drawdown from Afghanistan. 

Modi should realise that in order to secure our defences, we need a full time Defence Minister. Defence is a matter which cannot be handled part time by ministers, no matter how senior they are. When it comes to national security, India expects more responsible behavior from the new Prime Minister. There can be no excuses.

(Ankur Bhardwaj is a corporate slave with an interest in politics, policy & sports. Views are personal)

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