The “pipes” were sounded when she flagged off an all-women’s crew on a tall-ship voyage. The publicity-machine of the MoD did a slick job recycling the story about women being drafted into the military police, and followed that up with a photograph of Nirmala Sitharaman in the cockpit of a jetfighter. Fair enough, faujis love a “show”.

Yet the still-new defence minister would be aware that ceremonials are only a part of her duties, stiff challenges lie ahead. Among them would be resolving the situation posed by about 100 officers of the Army Service Corps seeking intervention of the Supreme Court in their “case” against being denied promotions available to their colleagues in the combat arms when they are also drafted into operational assignments like anti-militancy missions in J&K.

While the court has asked them to await a government decision, the extent of their grievance can be gauged by the petitioners requesting they be excluded from those risky duties if they were denied the career-advancement benefits available to their “mates”.

In years gone by officers seeking judicial redress would have been slammed for doing something “just not done”, and the request to be spared tough duties deemed an act of indiscipline and insubordination (maybe cowardice too); today soldiers do not hesitate to “fight for their rights”. Their demand could adversely impact deployment-levels on counter-insurgency operations ~ for the past few years the overall shortage in the officer cadres had been addressed by drafting personnel from the support services to join those from the combat arms in “battle” conditions.

To the layman the demand for parity in promotions would appear valid, the ministry would have its own perceptions ~ and Sitharaman might be required to “bell the cat”.

Personnel and “compensation-related” issues affect the functioning of the forces as much as the need for modernisation of weapons and systems, shortages of ammunition and other stores. While funds may be squeezed for new fighters, guns and warships, upgrading compensation to the soldier’s satisfaction is a more thorny problem.

As is evident from the matter taken to court there are internal disparities, and then the larger tussle between the “uniforms” and the babus ~ particularly those controlling the purse strings. Thee are residual problems over implementation of the Pay Commission award, the heartburn persists over the way the One-Rank One-Pension scheme was executed, and matters pending before the various benches of the Armed Forces Tribunal testify to the lingering civil-military squabble over pay and allowances and other benefits.

The NDA government has not had a full-time defence minister long enough to sort out such complications, even Sitharaman will have only limited time at her disposal. Yet she must create an impression of being aware that the way to a soldier’s heart is through his hip-pocket.