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Manohar Parrikar ended up getting tangled up in all the defence deals he tried to unravel

The two biggest decisions during the Parrikar tenure to purchase military systems saw direct involvement from the top echelons of the government.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Jul 14, 2018, 12.29 PM IST|Original: Mar 19, 2017, 06.17 AM IST
Insiders point out that unlike most of his predecessors, who spent considerable time visiting troops at forward locations, Parrikar had minimal field interaction.
Insiders point out that unlike most of his predecessors, who spent considerable time visiting troops at forward locations, Parrikar had minimal field interaction.
On the back of a successful tenure as Goa chief minister, Manohar Parrikar came to South Block as a breath of fresh air in 2014. Unafraid to question the bureaucracy on norms governing decision making for decades, he engaged in technical discussions with the defence forces on requirements of modern weapon systems and, armed with new ideas, promised to kick-start the Make in India initiative.

His specialty, the confident defence minister said a few weeks into his tenure, was to "untie the knots and get things going". The first few months were a heady mix of pending policy tweaks, long sessions with industry leaders to understand the issues faced and a flurry of ¡§clearances¡¨ to initiate critical military procurements. However, as the months passed by, it became clear that Parrikar had become entangled in the very knots he wished to untie.

His pet project --- to identify private sector companies for major defence manufacturing projects --- had been stymied by strong objections from the bureaucracy. The industry became increasingly vocal with the legitimate frustration that the only Make in India orders being given out were to the public sector and the quick policy changes he wanted to roll out took impossible shapes and deadlines.

By mid-2016, even his biggest supporters would admit that Parrikar's ministry was in a deadlock over the most vital functions it performed --- equipping the military, ensuring personnel-related issues are addressed and implementing much needed structural changes.

Operational matters
With operational matters of national security being dealt directly at the top level in the Modi government, Parrikar's involvement in tricky issues like border entanglements, tackling of insurgency and dealing with China and Pakistan were several notches lower than his predecessors.

In the three biggest security debacles in his tenure --- the June 2015 attack on an army convoy in Manipur, the Pathankot airbase breach in January 2016 and Uri attack in September that left 19 soldiers dead --- the aftermath has been dealt directly by the Prime Minister's Office.

This included the two cross-border strikes into Myanmar and Pakistan and the operation to clear the airbase that were monitored and controlled by the PMO in direct coordination with the armed forces.

Insiders point out that unlike most of his predecessors, who spent considerable time visiting troops at forward locations, Parrikar had minimal field interaction.

In his two year-plus tenure, the minister went to the Siachen glacier just once. His focus area remained Goa, which the minister visited almost every weekend throughout his South Block stint --- with a Friday evening Indigo flight being his preferred mode of travel.

The two biggest decisions during the Parrikar tenure to purchase military systems too saw direct involvement from the top echelons of the government.

The $7.8 billion deal to purchase 36 Rafale fighters was negotiated between top PMO officials and the French government and the multi-billion dollar int e r government a l agreement to make Kamov Ka-226 choppers with Russia too followed the same route.

In the limited time that he had, Parrikar, however, made some brilliant interventions that saved the exchequer thousands of crores of rupees. How these interventions are implemented, though, will be determined by his successors.

In early 2016, India's air defence plans were altered after an intervention that saved the taxpayer Rs 49,300 crore in acquisitions over the next decade. While clearing negotiations to acquire the Russian S-400 long range missile shield, the minister ordered a review that cut down other planned acquisitions and saved almost half a lakh crore rupees.

Similarly, Parrikar refused to move ahead on a high-cost plan of the navy to design a next-generation aircraft carrier with a potential budget of over Rs 10,000 crore. The simple logic of the minister was that a new aircraft carrier would have limited utility for India and the same resources would be used to address more urgent needs like new frigates and submarines.

The minister also mooted a study on defence purchases from Russia and Israel --- two of India's largest defence suppliers.

The objective was to find ways to make them more efficient --- cutting down on time delays and cost escalations. A study on reducing the inflation rate followed for Russian contracts, for example, had the potential of saving over Rs 4,000 crore a year.

However, an inability to push through regular procurements of ammunition, spares and other critical weapons during the tenure resulted in the capability void within the services widening further.

In the aftermath of the Uri attack and planned cross-border strikes in Pakistan, attempts have been made for the emergency procurement of critical spares, ammunition and missiles under the emergency route. However, this has come at a great expense and would invite close scrutiny from auditors.

Sadly, the basics have not been addressed yet. For the average solider in the field, all basic equipment remains the same --- an underpowered unreliable assault rifle, a missing carbine, clothing that has not been upgraded in years and sniper rifles that are no match to the enemy.

Even new bulletproof jackets and helmets, ordered last year after several months of delay in decisionmaking, are yet to be delivered to the army.

Unfinished business
Parrikar's biggest delivery goal perhaps was unlocking Make in India in the defence sector. With the industry raring to go and a multi-billion dollar kitty to be unleashed, hope has given way to frustration.

Seemingly, all eggs had been put in one basket --- the deadlocked Strategic Partnerships model. With Parrikar determined that the best way forward was to preselect a clutch of private sector companies for large orders and the bureaucracy advising him against it, procurements under Make in India have been stuck for over 18 months.

In its meetings with the PMO, industry representatives shared how a lack of orders by the defence ministry is holding them back. All major orders for the past two years have gone to the public sector. No fresh jobs have been created and most companies have revisited investment plans.

Insiders say that all that is needed to change the mood back to positive is a move ahead on a few cases like awarding a contract to make new fighter planes in India or going ahead with plans to construct amphibious warships domestically.

Parrikar was frustratingly close to delivering on several of these before his untimely exit from the ministry. The unfinished business would prove to be tough on his successor though.

The fate of over half a dozen committees that Parrikar ordered to usher in reform also hangs in balance. These range from rightsizing of the army and setting up an entirely new defence procurement agency to implementing a new blacklisting policy. Parrikar's return to Goa to run a coalition government has unfortunately left the defence ministry tied up in trickier knots than the ones he inherited.

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