The late Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw once rued that Indian politicians, especially those who headed the defence ministry, could not tell a mortar from a motor, a guerilla from a gorilla and a gun from a howitzer. Manohar Parrikar, the Goa chief minister who passed away on March 17 after a brief but spirited battle against cancer, would have prompted the Field Marshal to make an honourable exception. The metallurgical engineer from IIT-Bombay was the country’s first technocrat defence minister. Besides the spartan lifestyle and scrupulous honesty he shared with his predecessors, George Fernandes and A.K. Antony, Parrikar, a grassroots politician who had single-handedly established the BJP in Goa, came with an ability to quickly grasp problems and take swift decisions. Among his biggest achievements was the grant of One Rank One Pension, or the same pension for all armed forces veterans irrespective of the date of retirement, which is now trumpeted as an NDA-II milestone. In 2015, he calculated the annual outgo to the ministry, over Rs 7,000 crore per annum, and pushed for its implementation, much against the wishes of the bureaucracy and his cabinet colleagues. He also pushed through urgently needed purchases of helmets and bullet-proof jackets for the soldiers, which had been stuck in red tape for years.
Nor was he the kind to turn the other cheek. Lt General Satish Dua, former commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, recalls how the defence minister landed at his office just hours after the September 18 attack by Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists that killed 19 soldiers in Uri and green-lighted cross-border raids, the so-called ‘surgical strikes’.
Parrikar was a reluctant entrant into room No. 104 of South Block, accepting the post in 2014 six months after it had been offered. He once told his aides he preferred being a big fish in a small pond. He went on to narrate another small fish anecdote to a gathering of small defence entrepreneurs. Parrikar’s Goa-based hydraulic parts-making factory had, in the mid-1990s, lost a contract to build components for a DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) bridge-laying tank project, despite his design being approved. He saw the building of an indigenous defence industry as a prerequisite for India to realise its power dreams. He balanced the indigenous thrust with immediately required defence purchases and pushed hard to bring change in the defence ministry in a brief tenure-the second shortest in 20 years after Pranab Mukherjee’s 17-month stint in UPA-I.
Among Parrikar’s achievements was throwing a lifeline to the indigenous light combat aircraft ‘Tejas’ project. He convinced the Indian Air Force, unhappy with a Mark 1 variant, to accept a stopgap order of 83 Mark 1A aircraft. He intervened in the case of a South Korean self-propelled howitzer-maker, Samsung Tecwin, which beat its Russian competitor in technical trials. The ‘resultant single vendor’, as the defence ministry calls it, would in the normal course see the contract being scrapped and re-tendered, causing a delay of several years, but Parrikar pushed for the deal. He argued that ‘merit cannot be penalised’. The Rs 5,000 crore deal to license-build 100 SP howitzers by Larsen & Toubro is this government’s largest ‘Make in India’ defence deal. He cleared purchases worth Rs 20,000 crore to fill voids in stocks of ammunition, missiles and spare parts.
He was a voracious reader and that included the backlog of defence ministry files where he made lengthy notings as he went into the nuts and bolts of each-from the composition of runways used by the IAF to the indigenous content in India’s nuclear submarine fleet. It took him a year to understand the problems of the ministry, flabby and unreformed since Independence-dysfunctional decision making, import lobbies, a marginalised private sector, a monolithic public sector and no long-term vision. He set about trying to fix this, his learning curve aided by several committees. Where he failed was getting many of the major reforms past the bureaucracy and his cabinet colleagues.
After just two years in Delhi, Parrikar began to feel what he had feared, like the small fish. He returned to Goa, some say, disillusioned by the politics in Delhi. The big void he left behind in the defence ministry has yet to be filled.