Sitharaman Will Have to Grapple With Urgent Reforms in Defence Min

Nirmala Sithraman has limited time and less political clout as far as implementing defence reforms is concerned.

6 min read
Sitharaman Will Have to Grapple With Urgent Reforms in Defence Min

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Nirmala Sitharaman’s appointment as India’s full-time Defence Minister was received with surprise, euphoria and cynicism, roughly in that order. It has been hijacked as an issue of women’s empowerment, whereas the core issue is empowerment of the armed forces. Overzealous TV anchors labelled it as the ultimate Raksha Bandhan. For the rest of us, at least we have a defence minister!

I have frequently lamented the lack of priority and focus by the Modi government on defence and national security despite its loud vocalising of Jai Jawan. Otherwise, why the ad hocism in the Ministry of Defence in the last three years – being treated as a part time ministry with ministers switching places as easily as changing apparel and oncologist-cum-minister of state posted as the gatekeeper.

Also Read: Nirmala Sitharaman’s Journey: From JNU to Defence Ministry


Challenges for Nirmala Sitharaman

  • Three years of Modi govt were marked by politicisation of the army with political class boasting about surgical strikes.
  • Nirmala Sitharaman lacks political clout as she is second from bottom among 27 cabinet ministers in terms of seniority.
  • New defence minister should prioritise and concentrate on operational preparedness, defence reforms and improving civil-military relations.
  • Issues related to pay disparity should be addressed with 46 anomalies of 6th Pay Commission and four anomalies of One Rank One Pension hanging fire.
  • Cross posting of military officers in MoD will result in integration as recommended by the Kargil review Committee Report.

Politicisation of the Army

Manohar Parrikar, who had just about got to grips with his job, was moved to Goa as administering it was considered more vital than defence of the realm. No wonder the government’s difficult ally, the Shiv Sena, is periodically advising it to spend as much time and resources on defence to avoid more Doklams as it does on winning

In the three years of the Modi government, the armed forces have got a raw deal despite the political class extracting maximum political benefits from the surgical strikes and in time, probably also from Doklam.

Parrikar’s people used to claim that it was he who had planned the surgical strikes and infused the Hanuman spirit in the Army, thanks to his RSS training. This was a blatant attempt at politicisation and saffronisation of the soldiers, the very antithesis of the values the military upholds.

Also Read: Army, Navy IAF Chiefs Call on New Defence Minister Sitharaman


Will Nirmala’s Voice Prevail?

India’s military has remained professional, secular, apolitical and under civilian political control which has tragically veered towards illegitimate bureaucratic control. This has led to the armed forces forfeiting their rights of role in the decision-making process besides being systematically downgraded in status compared with civilian and
police services and hurting their morale.

Sitharaman has just 20 months to prove her mettle and sort out the mess that has accumulated in the ministry.

Her helicopter rise from junior minister of commerce and industry, directly to cabinet rank and joining the CCS is unprecedented and reflects the confidence reposed in her by Modi.

Notwithstanding her entry into this rarefied group, she will lack the political clout – in seniority she is second from bottom among 27 cabinet ministers – of her predecessors like AK Antony, George Fernandes, Sharad Pawar and Jagjivan Ram.

With relatively junior ministers in charge of key ministries, the PMO and NSA are tempted and liable to encroach in their domain as they did during the sudden turning on its head of the Rafale deal with France – the decision to acquire 36 instead of 126 Rafale fighter jets.

Putting Defence Reforms on Track

To her credit, she is from JNU’s 1980s tradition of politics and rebellion, the class of Free Thinkers, many of whom gheraoed the VC office for sealing of a student’s room.

So she has the unconventional trait which will be required to reset the grooved thinking and mood of the bureaucrats who have used the rulebook to block reform. Sitharaman faces a steep learning curve, imbibing first and foremost, the values,
ethics, traditions and customs of the three military services.

Too often have ministers appeared on military ceremonial events at Jai Jawan memorial, clad in casuals and sandals. As her list of ‘to do’ is long she has to prioritise and concentrate on three issues – operational preparedness, defence reforms and improving civil-military relations. Defence preparedness has shown up many voids like critical hollowness in holdings of ammunition and equipment and state of

Modernisation has suffered due to paucity of funds, cumbersome procurement procedures and probity trumping battle-readiness. With next year’s budget around the corner, she will have to get Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to loosen the purse.
Defence reforms in India are crisis driven.

For now, all Sitharaman has to do is dust two old reports – Kargil Review Committee and Naresh Chandra Task force – and order their review and implementation.

Most of the recommendations are stuck due to bureaucrats blocking them to protect their turf. Sitharaman has to bring down this wall.

Also Read: Can Nirmala Sitharaman Be a Game-Changer for Defence Ministry?


Too caught up to read? Listen to the story here:

Integration of Civil and Military Bureaucracies

Improving civil-military relations, which are in slow descent, even a notch or two will be a singular achievement. The civilian, political and bureaucratic class, goes the anecdote, are more afraid of their own military than the enemy. This is the origin of the post independence military bogey though India has the most ‘obedient’
armed forces anywhere.

This contrived threat has thwarted the creation of Chief of Defence Staff and integration of the armed forces. Also conspicuously missing is the integration of the civil and military bureaucracies of the three wings of the armed forces. Divide and Rule has imposed high costs.

Also Read: FYI, New Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is Ex-JNU: Netizens


Pay Disparity

There are four aspects related to the systematic and progressive dilution and denigration of the military:-

  • Their status in the warrant of precedence
  • Festering anomalies in pay, allowances and pensions
  • Marginalisation from institutionalised decision making process, and
  • Integration of civil and military bureaucracies

The status of officers, JCOs and other ranks has declined with every pay commission as only civilians are members of such panels.

The military was brought down below the IPS after the 6th Pay Commission, and soldiers equated with the lowest rung of unskilled workers.

The 7th Pay Commission has made matters worse by tinkering with the ‘Grade Pay’ further. It determines status by making the military ineligible to the Non Functional Upgrade (NFU) scheme which enhances the grade pay of civil servants.

46 anomalies of the 6th Pay Commission and four anomalies of One Rank One Pension are hanging fire. Despite 18 ex-Military Chiefs writing to Prime Minister Modi last year, and three service chiefs seeking a meeting with Modi (which did not materialise), little else happened.

Only the armed forces, which are 29 per cent of all government services, take the oath of honour pledging to sacrifice their lives for the country.


Sitharaman has 20 Months

Only with cross posting of military officers in MoD and the bureaucrats joining the Integrated Defence Staff can there be a modicum of trust introduced through integration and jointness as recommended by the Kargil Review Committee report. The Indian fighting machine will be more robust if the civil services and the military are
properly integrated and jointness brought among the three services.

Only then will civil-military relations start picking up. In the allocation of Business Rules, the defence of India is shown as the responsibility of the defence secretary (some bureaucrat whose last job may have been with the Department of Animal Husbandry or Urban Development) who is not accountable. It is the
Defence Minister who is answerable to Parliament.

Sitharaman will require all the luck and 20-months without the Pathankots and the Doklams to settle down and implement already recommended reforms to improve civil-military relations and enhance battle-readiness.


(The author is founder member of Defence Planning Staff, currently the
Integrated Defence Staff.
This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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