Arun Jaitley, India’s finance minister, left, speaks to Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister in New Delhi, India (Photographer: Kuni Takahashi/Bloomberg)

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

BloombergQuintOpinion

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.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley with then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad at India Gate, in New Delhi on September 15, 2015. (Photograph: PIB)
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley with then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad at India Gate, in New Delhi on September 15, 2015. (Photograph: PIB)

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 organisation, and its mindset, will remain industrial age even as the Chinese and other more advanced counterpart forces will transition to fifth generation ‘hybrid’ warfare featuring space-based weapons and robotic systems.

Jaitley And Parrikar’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.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the President of France  Francois Hollande, in Paris on April 10, 2015. (Photograph: PIB)
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the President of France Francois Hollande, in Paris on April 10, 2015. (Photograph: PIB)

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.

Bharat Karnad is professor for national security studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.