Within a week of the interim finance minister seeking accolades for the defence allocations tipping Rs 300 lakh crore, the defence ministry has put things into a more realistic perspective. It has cited a resource crunch for suspending the payment of travel and daily allowance to officers required to travel away from home base on temporary duty/some training assignments. That follows the derailment of several civil engineering works ~ hangars for Rafale jetfighters, extension of runways, improving of defensive perimeters around key installations (who can forget the gaping holes at IAF Pathankot, the camp at Uri) and similar projects. All delayed because the Military Engineering Service is unable to clear contractors’ bills. True that suppressing payments is a common ploy to “cook the books” but the NDA government goes into raptures over surgical strikes that caused little more than lacerations to the military machine across the LOC and seeks to make much of augmenting the soldier’s punch. A resource-crunch is a self-condemning confession that takes the edge off ministerial bombast: even if the money held back on the two counts cited is a miniscule proportion of the defence budget. “Optics” speak louder than words, and Mrs Nirmala Sitharaman is a specialist when it comes to putting on a show.
Since payments for military hardware are spread over the years it would be incorrect to conclude that the resource crunch would impact programmes of modernisation and re-equipment, yet whenever the Defence Acquisition Council announces the clearance of big ticket items an indication of the financial provisions would help sell the story. Election-time also provides occasion for stock-taking, the defence minister would boost her image if she was bold enough to list the acquisitions approved since May 2014, and took the nation into confidence on the status of the purchases. Politically that would contrast the NDAs showing with the policy-paralysis of the UPA’s tenure. Press conferences and trips to forward areas are just not good enough to prove that Mrs Sitharaman is miles ahead of squeaky-clean AK Antony.
Another issue requiring resolution is the eruption of the unseemly spat between the IAF and Hindustan Aeronautics. For unless the Chief of the Air Staff was following political instructions, his using the “Jumbo” Mazumdar Memorial Lecture to slam the public sector undertaking was distasteful, a dishonour to the legendary aviator whose exploits inspired a generation of air warriors to sport wings on their tunics. Both the IAF and HAL function under the stewardship of the defence ministry, they cannot afford to be seen as operating on different wavelengths. Maybe Rahul Gandhi has blundered in his allegations that HAL was short-changed in the Rafale offsets deal, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa has no business attacking HAL to “prove” the NDA-government’s case. Mrs Sitharaman has the firepower to conduct her own demolition job.