Why Arun Jaitley As Defence Minister Ought To Be An Interim Arrangement

As far as Manohar Parrikar is concerned, it was a perfect storm. The Goa political scene was on the boil. The odd-makers who had favoured the Congress party to get more seats than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state elections and to form a government by itself or in coalition with smaller pesky provincial outfits were all but proved right. The dissent in BJP seemed by and large immune to Parrikar’s remote management by telephone and weekly trips. Add to this mix Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party boss Amit Shah’s determination to not let this coastal state slip out of BJP’s grasp and, in parallel, Parrikar’s growing discomfiture with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) looking over his shoulder and subtly and not so subtly influencing his Ministry of Defence decisions, and you had a defence minister primed to leave at a moment’s notice. Once the election results were announced, and Shah suggested that Parrikar pack up and save the day for the BJP in Goa, he did just that, deftly maneuvering the power right out of the clueless and complacent Congress party’s state in-charge, Digvijaya Singh’s hands.

 

The trouble though is that instead of selecting a defence specialist – such as, say, VK Saraswat, the former head of the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) and Science Adviser to Defence Minister now being wasted in the NITI Ayog – the Prime Minister plonked, even if as an interim measure, for Arun Jaitley. Happy in the Finance Ministry, Jaitley is once again saddled with overseeing the military for which he had shown little interest in his earlier concurrent stint as defence minister.

 

 Jaitley has been a member of the policy establishment for many decades and, as such, tilts towards the status quo, accepting the conventional wisdom on almost every issue of public import. Thus, whatever Modi’s agenda, Jaitley’s ‘don’t rock the boat’ attitude has translated into policy incrementalism and economic reforms carried out at a deliberate pace. Where defence is concerned, this tendency would only be heightened, strengthening, in turn, the military’s institutional conservatism. Between the armed services’ inertia and Jaitley’s ‘do as little differently as possible’ outlook, the Indian military’s organization and its mindset, will remain industrial age even as the Chinese and other more advanced counterpart forces will transition to fifth generation ‘hybrid’ warfare featurng space-based weapons and robotic systems.

Jaitley and Parrrikar’s record at South Block

As Finance Minister, Jaitley stopped the raising of the first offensive mountain corps in its tracks, saying the country could not afford the costs involved of Rs 64,000 crore. As concurrently Defence Minister, he stuck by that decision, resulting in the Panagarh-based 17 Corps being only half-raised with only the 59 Mountain Division under command; and the second such unit, the 72 Mountain Division still to see the light of day. But here Jaitley took his cue from the Prime Minister.

At the December 2015 Combined Commanders’ Conference, Modi had declared, somewhat cryptically, that “[Military] modernisation and expansion of forces, both at the same time, is a difficult and unnecessary goal”. In practical terms this meant, for instance, that the government would somehow come up with the Rs 84,000 crore ($12 billion) as payment to “modernise” the Indian Air Force with the April 2015 impulse-buy by Modi in Paris of 36 Rafale combat aircraft, but defund 17 Corps, that would enable the Indian Army for the first time to take the fight to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on the Tibetan Plateau.

In contrast, the Rafale decision was resisted by Parrikar. An IIT Bombay graduate he approached the problem as an engineer would, to conclude correctly that it made no sense to purchase the Rafale and that too in such small numbers. The ready solution is for the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft and the Sukhoi Su-30MKI to afford the country a formidable one-two punch at a fraction of the cost. The Tejas and its variants can be developed and inducted on a war-footing as the bulk air defence aircraft. The Su-30MKI, regarded as the best multi-role warplane in the world, and assembled by Hindustan Aeronautics in Nasik, can perform the strike and air superiority missions. Also in the inventory are upgraded MiG-29s and Mirage 2000s secondarily to rely on.

 

Because Jaitley may not have specialist outside counselors to guide him, he is likely to, when not doing what PMO asks him to do, simply follow the advice given by generalist civil servants in Ministry of Defence and/or the uniformed brass. Jaitley may not study the complex issues and do what Parrikar did in mid-2016 when, despite great pressure from the Navy, he ruled out a heavy 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier.

 

Later in the year, Parrikar proved that arms self-sufficiency was more than a political slogan for him. In a meeting in South Block in September last year, Parrikar first heard out the case for sustaining the naval LCA programme and then the arguments by Rear Admiral Surendra Ahuja – who is Assistant Controller of Carrier Project and Assistant Controller of Warship Production & Acquisition – for terminating this home-grown fighter plane. Parrikar, while approving a Request for Information (RFI) for carrier aircraft, which the navy was desperately seeking, ordered that there would be no let-up in the LCA programme, and the realisation of the Tejas Mk-1A, Mk-2, the naval LCA and the follow-on Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft would proceed full steam. The beauty of this decision is that by the time the RFI process is completed in 2022 or so, the naval Tejas will be ready for carrier deployment, and the RFI becomes defunct.

 

Jaitley is unlikely to be as sagacious a defence minister as Parrikar. What then explains the Prime Minister’s installing him in the Ministry of Defence? It could be that he wants Jaitley helming both the defence and finance ministries just so tens of billions of dollars can be rifled up for military hardware acquisition deals, including for the antique F-16 fighter aircraft – good only for museum display – to please the President of the United States Donald J Trump. Modi is set to visit Washington D.C. in May.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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8 Responses to Why Arun Jaitley As Defence Minister Ought To Be An Interim Arrangement

  1. CDB says:

    Good article

  2. raja says:

    whether we make lca-xxx or amca-xxx or su-xyz. we must triple our physics based arsenal.
    What we failed till now is : we failed to instill fear in the mind of pakistan and china. Hence everyone taking us lightly. Time has come for the rapid militarisation of the country.
    By this time at any moment PLA will show its signature on our borders. Its surprising not observing any such news. May be they are planning for something else. We need to be careful.
    Terroristan needs to be xfurcated. No more muscular policy. We need to show the bone. Civility and aping liberal views will not work with pakistan and china.

  3. devraj says:

    Russia is india’s closest ally whereas usa is situation based strategic partner.simiarly pak is china’s strategic need to balance india.thatswhy it gave nukes to pak.then why dont russia providing india thermonuclear designs so that india can make high yields thermonukes.afterall india is biggest ally customer of russian weapons and close ally.if devil china gives nukes to pak then why dont russia help india to make thermonukes

  4. andy says:

    Jaitley has been a risk averse and status quoist FM, problem is he has the inside track with PM.Modi,so inspite of not being a popular politician he invariably lands coveted positions in this dispensation.It would be too much to expect anything drastic from him as interim RM evcept maybe a quick finalization of the Shinmaywa and F16 deals,which PMO seems to be keen on.

    Trump and Xi have akready met and the POTUS has already backtracked from naming China a currency manipulator so the portends are not good for India,what with China appeasement following the US offer of mediation for the Indo pak imbroglio.Our PM has been granted an audience with Trump only in may where probably he would like to pay tribute in the form of big ticket defence purchses,but ofcourse this is how sidekucks are treated,time we stopped pretending otherwise.

    • Apna says:

      Narendra modi now gives bribes to usa in form of immediate decisipn to buy spy infested american junk weaponary costing billions of dollars all within 2 years without any tender.
      So you noticed the H1B conundrum. A man who chases the US president around 10 times in 2 years is reduced to begging for H1Bs, that too for a yesterday’s industry. An industry which

  5. Venkat says:

    Defence ministry is a full time job. It also requires a mature handling, given that we not modernised our forces post Kargil to,the extent planned. Then we need to localise more and more not only product manufacture but also technology development.
    MP brought these traits very well to office. A technocrat with a human touch. Just like George Fernandes.
    Maybe Modi has someone in mind, take time to ensure that person moves out of the current job with a good back up. This will ensure Goa is not repeated.
    Till then Jetley being the finance minister is the best choice.

  6. Apna says:

    Arun jetley should not be allowed in any cabinet post let alone the important ministry of finance and defence.
    For the simple reason that he lost election at height of Modi wave in 2014.
    Such people rejected by the people must not be allowed in high govt. Cabinet post.
    Otherwise election is a mockery.
    Besides Arun jetley is not a politician as such but a daal- pomp working for vested interests and engaged only pin behind the scene deals.
    Hardly a man for more honest government.

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