Symbolism runs strong in the military’s veins, and the defence minister could strike the right chord with the ‘faujis’ for selecting the Siachen Glacier for his first visit outside Delhi in his new avatar.
The world’s highest battlefield holds a special place in the Army’s scale of values, and has strategic significance for both the Pakistan and China “fronts”. However, more importantly, the Glacier, or the Saltoro Ridge to be specific, is where the jawans face their greatest challenge against both the adversary and nature, so a ministerial visit does help forge a special bond between the most elevated and lowest points of the national security endeavour.
By making Siachen his “second home” George Fernandes earned the accolade of “Jawans’ Minister” ~ it is too soon to determine if that mantle will fall on Rajnath Singh’s shoulders but well-begun is said to be half-done. Like all new defence ministers, Mr Singh, will have many challenges and demands to meet.
The military’s wish-list is never ending. To be realistic, even Niramala Sitharaman’s first-hand experience will not leave her with much “wiggling” space when making the defence allocation in the budget ~ a couple of long suppressed economic indicators on GDP rise and raging unemployment point to critical priorities.
Yet the depleting combat fleet of the IAF ~ 36 Rafales will not solve the problem ~ compel an early decision on ordering more planes. The Army and Navy have their urgent needs too, and unless Mr Singh wants to follow in the footsteps of the motionless AK Antony he has some tough calls to take. Not that the Jaitley-Parrikar-Sitharman trio worked wonders.
Problems persist on the personnel front too: though the rumblings are less-audible the implementation of the one-rank one-pension promise leaves much to be desired. And, as verdicts of the Armed Forces Tribunals confirm, the soldier does not always get a fair deal.
The Army is undergoing an overhaul of its manpower-system, there could be a fall-out, there are such pinpricks that irk the Navy and Air Force too. Then there remains the induction of women into the fighting arms. And ramping up indigenous production requires an Herculean effort: great militaries are home-built not foreign-acquired.
True that many of those difficulties are “traditional” but there is a major one that no other defence minister has faced ~ the widespread impression that the military is fast-abandoning its apolitical ethos. “Nationalism” may have triggered fantastic electoral dividends but the longterm implications could prove disastrous.
The officer cadres of the forces have long-ceased to be a preferred career-option, and recent utterances from lesser-lights of the political establishment ~ like the UP chief minister’s description of a “Modi-sena” ~ could turn more young folk away. Mrs Sitharaman lacked the political clout to force a corrective. Mr Singh has the authority, but will he have the moral courage to exercise it?