“The first rule in the defence ministry” a senior bureaucrat once told me, “is learning how to defend yourself.”
But Manohar Parrikar, the IITian politician, whose career in Delhi as India’s 36th defence minister commenced with the winter of 2014, was slated to do much more than ‘self defence’.
In fact, he aimed at a ‘course correction’ after the ministry was helmed by Congress leader and former Kerala Chief Minister AK Antony for eight years — a period that saw several controversies concerning procurements and senior appointments.
Parrikar began with promises of faster decision-making, enhanced transparency, increased self-reliance in terms of defence manufacturing, and a sound policy framework to support the above-mentioned goals.
He made a serious attempt at walking the talk, indeed.
So focussed he was on the finer details, that I’d often hear senior officers talk about how Parrikar could engage them on matters that were fairly technical. From my sources I learnt that he’d take files home and study them. It would not be an overstatement to say that he toiled and earned the respect of the armed forces in the time he was their Raksha Mantri.
Among other things, his tenure saw an ugly One Rank One Pension (OROP) agitation leading to the scheme being operationalised, the signing of the Rafale contract, the cross-border strikes with Myanmar and Pakistan, the unveiling of the Defence Procurement Policy 2016, as well as attempts at major defence reforms which didn’t exactly take off.
Yet, his term ended in merely 28 months. March 13, 2017 was his last day as the country’s defence minister.
Following an election verdict that saw the BJP lose the majority in his home state, Parrikar chose to cobble up a coalition and crown himself the chief minister.
Later, speaking to his staff, I learnt that he had, in private, dropped enough hints about wanting to leave Delhi. “He was a loner in the national capital,” said an official who did not wish to be quoted. While Parrikar’s love for seafood is indeed documented, what isn’t is his taste for distinct cuisines. Especially on his tours abroad, his stay would confess, he’d be more than willing to try out newer preparations. His time in Delhi was hardly fruitful from that point of view. “He had lost four kilos in those two years, as he could neither find good fish nor adapt to the tastes here. While he made up for a non-existent social life in Delhi by putting in extra work hours, his heart was in Goa,” said an official who did not wish to be named.
I first saw him in 2010 or 2011, inside the Goa Legislative Assembly.
With his shirt out and floaters on the floor, he’d sit cross-legged and rather comfortably in his chair as the leader of opposition. For anyone covering those heated sessions inside the Goa Legislative Assembly when the state’s mining sector was in the eye of a storm in 2011, Parrikar’s demeanour stood out.
Elections were due next year, and Parrikar, who did win them and subsequently became the chief minister, was not going to let a juicy controversy pass.
I was told that he was keen to share material, provided it was ‘off the record’. That was when I first met him on a rainy afternoon at the gate of the assembly complex.
As I stood waiting for him, my eyes searched for his convoy. So when a small red car pulled up by my side, I didn’t even bother checking, until someone called out to me from inside. It was him.
Surprised, I got in the car and we drove past the security.
I’ve met many politicians who have an army of people hanging around their offices and homes. That day, Parrikar had none. The key to his office was inside his pocket. He opened the door, switched on the lights and we chatted.
That he did not let his simplicity become the victim of the office he held was visible even when he moved to Delhi as the defence minister. Unlike others who’d seek large bungalows for themselves and separate accommodation for their staff, Parrikar’s entire private staff – literally airlifted from CMO in Goa – would stay inside his Akbar road residence.
This is not to say the man didn’t have his failings.
Like any other politician, when he wasn’t keen to take on questions, he’d play really hard to get.
I particularly recall instances when I made several attempts to question him, but ended up being frustrated. He was not keen to take questions during the mining inquiry; likewise when he was the defence minister, and controversial decisions regarding the OROP agitation and the surgical strikes had been announced.
Also, in his zeal to unleash witty one-liners, he’d often end up attracting controversy.
Once, he inadvertently passed on some details about India’s nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, to me and another journalist. Realising what a scoop it was, he immediately requested we hold the information as it may hurt an aspect of the programme! There were many occasions when he’d say something controversial, then add that he was being misquoted. The journey from his juicy statements to his shell and back were several and given the office he held, provided fodder to his critics.
Yet, there was also the lighter side to his one-liners.
“You are more interested in TV coverage,” Parrikar shot back at Congress MP Jyotiraditya Scindia who was distracting him as he was reading out his statement inside the Parliament on the Pathankot terrorist strike in 2016. Years before, in 2012, when I met him after he became the chief minister, he pointed to a statue of King Shivaji prominently holding a sword. Confused, I asked about the reference and he said, “I placed it before my desk so that anyone who develops the wrong kind of ideas inside this office is kept in check,” he added.
In the last twelve months, his public appearances became limited.
From the time he was detected with pancreatic cancer to his demise, he lived a public life and yet, in none of his utterances admitted to suffering from it. Why he chose what he did remains a mystery.
Few know that Manohar Parrikar had a fear of heights. And yet, as he departs, he has secured a high place among the pantheon of Indian politicians who could effortlessly connect with the masses.
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ARUP RAHA (R): Procedures and negative remarks on file did not deter Parrikar from doing what was needed
As the Raksha Mantri, he was very efficient, intelligent and sharp. We found him approachable, open and hard-working.
What I found it very interesting was that he’d be the only person in the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) – Defence Ministry’s highest decision-making body – who would go through each and every aspect of those briefs we made very, very thoroughly. Not that the others wouldn’t do it but he’d do it extremely thoroughly.
I used to wonder how he managed getting through so many pages of briefs and understand it, analyse it and come well prepared.
Mathematics was his strong area. He’d remember numbers and calculations instantaneously. The pace of his mental calculations was such that we’d be left behind many steps.
Observing him one realised he wasn’t ready to get bogged down by procedures.
Defence acquisition process in our country moves very slowly. Our system is process-driven and seldom goal-driven or goal-oriented. He changed that.
Whenever we told him that so and so projects were languishing for so many months and years and that he needed to do something, he would actually tell his staff and other stakeholders to put their remarks on file and send the file up as quickly as possible so that he could consider it.
Most stakeholders, to my mind, didn’t really understand the impact of defence acquisition from the strategic, diplomatic, operational and other angles. They’d always look at it as a commercial event. But he did not. He looked at it from the viewpoint of strategic need, need of capability building and was ready to give his comments on file, positive comments, despite so much of negative remarks.
He would pick up the case for the armed forces even if the finance ministry did not agree. He would insist that the case be taken to the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) since he was confident that he would argue it before CCS and get the approvals. I admired that quality of his.
If he was convinced of a purchase, he would push it to the end and steer it through. Procedures and negative remarks on file did not deter him. He did not mind standing alone.
For example when we made the case for acquisition of fighter aircraft, when we gave him the presentation he understood the issue so clearly. Thereafter he himself took up the challenge to convince the highest authority. Towards that he himself gave the presentation. We were all there but he himself did the presentation to show how important it was. Rafale was one of the cases, there were others too. He made it a personal mission. Normally the officers in charge of departments or chiefs or vice chiefs would do such presentations but for this, he did it himself. That kind of involvement I haven’t seen.
In July 2016, the air force lost an An-32 transport aircraft which was ferrying 29 armed forces personnel from Tambaram in Chennai to Port Blair. Despite our best efforts for nearly two months, this aircraft could not be traced. Back then I recall he’d be very, very concerned. He sought an explanation almost every day which I used to give him. He also kept checking if we had kept the families informed and updated. He kept seeking feedback to improve the system and that revealed a very humane approach.
The attack on the airbase in Pathankot was another major event that I recall with him. My senior staff on the ground wasn’t keen to take him everywhere inside the base for reasons concerning safety but he wouldn’t have any of it. He insisted on seeing everything. He was a brave man.
His contribution was also felt on the One Rank One Pension (OROP) and 7th Pay Commission anomalies. He was determined to solve the issues. Had his suggestions been accepted completely then the outcome would have satisfied everyone.
Parrikar was keen on defence reforms. He ordered a lot of work to be done via committees. I know he was keen to get a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) in place but one must understand that defence reforms can not come in one day or a few years. Armed forces are just one of the stakeholders. There are a lot of vested interests and you can’t merely implement reforms in armed forces alone. People remain silent on those other aspects while pushing reforms in armed forces. There are too many pulls and pushes and vested interests. Had he remained our Raksha Mantri, I sense that he would have pushed things around.