The appointment of Rajnath Singh as the new defence minister is a welcome step.
His range of priorities would vary from ensuring development of capabilities to recreating the trust deficit between the uniformed, the political leadership and the bureaucracy. He is the senior most minister in the cabinet, evident by his seating on the dais and order of swearing in. Hence, his nomination as the defence minister is a message that the Prime Minister would in this tenure consider national security as his top priority.
In addition, he would be banking on Mr Singh to deliver on Make in India for the defence sector to enhance jobs. Mr Singh is a strong advocate of application of force against antinational elements, whether they be terrorists from across the border, separatists in the valley or Naxals in the hinterland. He has always backed strikes in retaliation to Pakistan’s misadventures, hence the message to Pakistan is that India would continue following a strong offensive policy.
In addition, he has the authority to take decisions, including financial ones, without looking over his shoulder for clearance from finance. During the time of Nirmala Sitharaman and Manohar Parrikar, Arun Jaitley controlled MoD’s purse strings. Pakistan have behaved after Balakote. They remain fearful of Indian actions.
Throughout the election campaign there were no misadventures nor infiltrations attempted. There should be no let down on pressures in either the valley or on Pakistan. We now have a government which was voted to enforce peace on its terms, and it must ensure it. The nation has yet to have a final national security strategy for handling multiple threats which it faces, including hybrid warfare.
Some work on the same has been done. It needs to be formally accepted. Mr Singh has been known to support forces under his command. No heads rolled for lapses in Pulwama, despite an intelligence and administrative failure. This should augur well for the army in its handling of terrorism in Kashmir. With Amit Shah in the Home ministry, they would work jointly to create the right environment for elections in the valley and pushing for peace and resolution.
While he was the Home Minister, Rajnath had pushed for the shift of the Assam Rifles and Coast Guard from the MoD to the MHA. He would now have the MoD perspective and hence the decision which would be taken on these two forces would be ideal for the nation, considering national security. He also is aware of the Naxal problem, which the army has stayed away from and which dogged the MHA.
He needs to be careful to avoid taking any hurried decision of pushing the army into controlling it. Similarly, he followed the policy of keeping the paramilitary away from army control even where the army remains responsible for border security. This added to management problems along the LAC with China, where these forces are concurrently deployed. This could now witness a change as he would be get a chance to understand the army’s difficulties in coordination and control.
In the MHA he acted immediately on procurement of equipment required by the CAPFs. Hence, in some cases they were better equipped than the army. Their procurement procedures are faster and involves lesser stages. He should carry this attitude to the MoD and bring about relevant changes. He must trust his chiefs and work with them for enhancing defence capabilities and rebuilding morale within the forces.
His major challenge as the defence minister is to break the bureaucratic MoD, which is more of a stumbling block than a supporter of the uniformed military. Most procurements face delays at the MoD level, as also directions from them hurt sentiments across the military. This would continue unless the MoD is reorganized, and service HQs amalgamated.
The chiefs have been appointed by the same government after deep selection, hence appointing a Chief of Defence Staff should be the next logical step. This government has the mandate, only needs the will. Will Rajnath Singh bell the cat? Make in India is not just a mantra but essential if India is to grow as a military power.
Two defence corridors have been inaugurated, without any forward movement in them. India needs in-house development and manufacturing rather than banking on imports. Finalising pending decisions on aircraft, submarines and Future Infantry Combat Vehicles cannot be delayed anymore, if Indian military power needs to be retained and enhanced.
Threats are on the rise; capabilities need to grow in sync. Simultaneously, the low defence allocation must be enhanced to a minimum of 2 per cent of the GDP in the forthcoming budget. Home-manufactured ammunition cannot be expected to be deficient. Ordnance factories have been more of a hindrance, than a boon. They need reorganisation or disbandment. He should decide their future. Reorganisation of the army is awaiting clearance in the MoD.
It needs to be acted upon. Leaving it to the bureaucracy implies letting it die a natural death. The rank and file have been facing regular drop in status and entitlements due to directions of the bureaucracy. This has increased heartburn and impacted morale. The letter written by the army chief to the then defence minister, Arun Jaitley, on Non-Functional Upgradation and its impact in lowering the status of the military, should now be sent by all service chiefs to Mr Singh. Immediate action by him would change outlooks.
Attending Diwali with troops alone would not enhance trust and faith in the government but acting for their welfare and equipment would. The armed forces have made the nation proud at every stage and it has been on the basis of their professionalism that the BJP fought the elections and won. It should now be payback time.
Rajnath Singh, a trusted aide of the Prime Minister, has been sent to the MoD to convey the importance of national security. His priority must be to change the existing bureaucratic MoD to enhance efficiency. It would rebuild trust and faith between the uniformed, bureaucracy and polity. He has performed exceptionally well as the Home Minister and the same is expected in the MoD.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)