Lingering suspicions in the military that the first full-time woman defence minister would be a softie would have been dispelled by Mrs Nirmala Sitharaman’s authoritative posture at her press conference on Tuesday.
Most of the string of media interactions ministers are conducting as part of the government’s fourth anniversary image-projection exercise have passed off as little more than a report-card to impress the Prime Minister (perhaps Amit Shah too), but Mrs Sitharaman carried the fight into the public domain by tackling most of the key issues facing the armed services.
She was categorical that the Ramzan cease-fire in J&K did not come in the way of the Army forcefully responding to mischievous provocation, and affirmed that the decision to suspend the launch of combat operations was taken by the government at large, the military would abide by it: similarly, any decision to revoke or extend the move would be taken by the government, not any single entity.
While other BJP leaders, and indeed some of the “brass” use every opportunity to threaten Pakistan, and the militants it backs, with a “bloody nose”, the minister presented an image of being firm without being bellicose.
A lesson which others will do well to emulate since it points to speaking from a position of strength. Having done much homework, she reeled off budgetary figures down several years (more than just four) to reject criticism of low defence spending, and advised those who found “evidence” of that in reports of the parliamentary standing committee to read the reports in their entirety before jumping to conclusions.
Similarly, she rejected suggestions of kickbacks in the Rafale purchase, and claimed that the government had addressed the ammunition-deficit it had inherited ~ adding a dash of political spice to enrich the flavour of her response to tricky queries.
But Mrs Sitharaman threw little light on the process to arrest the declining combat fleet of the IAF, nor did she dispel the widespread impression that “make in India” in the defence sector was yet to transcend from a slogan into reality. Or that the long-standing shortage in the officer cadres of the military was being tackled on a war footing.
To her credit she did not back off from the burning issue of lifting of restrictions on civilian traffic in cantonments ~ in which army-wives are playing a lead role.
While she did not disclose details of her meeting with them she elaborated the series of interactions of civil and military officials that preceded the decision ~ her knock-out punch being that the Chief of the Army Staff had attended the meeting that preceded the announcement.
True that subsequent events may point to her having being economical with the truth, but not for many years has a defence minister (of any government) sounded so convincing: which points to having won half the battle.