Defense Isn’t for Tinkering

And that’s What We’ve Been, and Are Doing ...

Worrisome Tinkering with Defense Portfolio – Part II

Continued from “Achilles’ Heel of Modi Government”

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where - ” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

— Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

Lamentable, indeed, is our national proclivity to be cussedly casual at times about all-too-important matters which we must address ourselves in dead seriousness. The most eloquent example of this is, how, ever since Independence, have our Raksha Mantris been selected. Come to think of it, would it make the slightest difference if any other set of thirty-five incumbents had been our Defense Ministers? The hydra-headed monster called the system could as well have seen us through.

Further compounding the above trait is the fact that among the characteristics of an Indian, the least is being aggressive. There are several reasons for this: our protracted feudal past, subjugation by foreign powers, the lineage of Buddha, and, above all, the all accommodative Hindu cultural values. These prized virtues that we cherish have tied down our hands, when it comes to being aggressive if needed in spheres as diverse as foreign policy and self-defense.

What is required is a drastic revision of our individual and collective values. Let our revised motto be: “Indeed we are peace lovers, but no one can provoke us with impunity. In a soldier’s language, it means: if you hit me on the chin, I’ll black both your eyes and push your teeth down your throat.” That’s the attitude t we must inculcate among our people. The North Star of behavior, both individual and collective, should be the last verse of the fourth chapter of Gita:

atisthottistha bharata (Gita: 4: 42)
O You descendant of Bharata, Stand up to Fight

Matter of Tenure

Besides our debilitating value system, another area of the rot that has set in is the merry-go-round of Cabinet postings. The way we have gone about it in the past six and half decades, needs a drastic revision.

The practice of posting our public functionaries for a period of two years on average is a British legacy. It was based, I think, entirely on distrust of Indians. Before an incumbent becomes a possible threat to the established order, he must be shifted. Take a district collector. Before he settles down and starts coming to grips with the real problems it is time to lobby for the next posting. Instead of facilitating any meaning change, the system ensured the perpetuation of status quo − that formidable obstacle in the way of progress.

Let me take the example of Cabinet Ministers. Unless these are sinecure posts − pure and simple − awarded for political services rendered to the Party, one expects some tangible results from these functionaries. We should, instead, opt for a minimum tenure of five years during which the functionary could make a meaningful thrust in areas that matter. He should be assigned targets to achieve and adjudged at the end of term how he had fared. The whole idea of Cabinet shuffle and re-shuffle makes no sense because the number of kings, queens and jokers remains the same how many timed you may shuffle the pack of cards.

Cost to Country

The Cost to the Country of an MP is about a crore per year, including pay and perks, and travel within and without the country. There is no precise calculation of the Cost to the Country of a Cabinet Minister. It is safe to infer it runs into several crores, including all heads of expenditure.

Prime Minister Modi, for instance, selected just 45-member Council of Ministers. The UPA-II government, you may recall, had 70 ministers, which can be attributed to the more-the-merrier coalition compulsions. The conservative estimate of the salaries of the personal staff, their perks and allowances of each cabinet minister runs into crores. This estimate excludes foreign travels made by the ministers during their tenure, something they most eagerly look forward to.

If the tax-payers pay so much for our parliamentarians and ministers, aren’t we entitled to know how our Hon’ble Ministers are chosen and how their performance targets are fixed and, above all, do they succeed or not in providing leadership to their Ministries to achieve tangible results.

As a leader, a minister must have certain attributes associated with leadership. In that famous October 1995 inaugural K M Cariappa Memorial Lecture on Leadership, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw said: “The first, the primary, indeed the cardinal attribute of leadership is professional knowledge and professional competence.” None of us is born with it. It is to be painstakingly acquired by hard work and by continuing learning. In our technologically fast-changing world, professional knowledge has to be continuously updated. Holding their offices on an average of, say, a year and a half, what professional knowledge our Cabinet Ministers acquire and bring to bear on the performance of their work? Can, for instance, the 35 defense minsters we have had since Independence cross their hearts and swear they ever read a book on military history, on strategy, on weapons or did something else to update their professional knowledge during their tenure of office. You are a miserable failure as leader of men if those whom you’re supposed to lead do your thinking. Hence the lackluster performance, of almost all incumbents of the defense portfolios!

Unless then they have professional knowledge and professional competence, Ministers cannot, and will never, become leaders. And that explains the Babu Raj we have had. Ministers come and go. It is the babus who rule the roost.

Another indispensable attribute of leadership is the ability to think; to make up your mind, to take a decision and accept full responsibility for that decision. Lack of professional knowledge and professional competence are the reasons why so-called leaders dither in taking decisions. No wonder we have had during the UPA Administrations, Group of Ministers taking decision so that the responsibility for failure can be passed around.

Most Casual Approach

Let us take the all-important issue of choosing Defense Ministers ever since Independence. Our overall approach can best be described by the term casual or perfunctory. The incumbent could be X or Y since it was a decorative position. Publicly iterating and reiterating its vital importance, we have all through been casual in our choice. No wonder therefore, the Narendra Modi government has conformed to the practice as it obtained over the years. In fact, he has gone too far. An ailing Arun Jaitley, in and out of hospital, has a dual charge: finance and defense. Can you imagine anything weirder than that? Each of his charges is more than full time assignment.

List of Incumbents

Please see (Incumbency Chart in Part I of this article) for ready reference, the list of all incumbents of our Defense Ministry before Prime Minister Modi allotted – supposedly − for the time being, the all-important portfolio to Arun Jaitley which makes him the 35th incumbent to be followed shortly by the one likely to be announced sometime later. Heavens know, when? He will be our 36th Defense Minister. Thus we shall have 36 Defense Ministers in 66 years since Independence which yields an average tenure of 1.8 years per incumbent.

Compared to this China has had, as pointed outlast week, only eleven Defense Ministers since mid-1950’s

The average tenure of eleven incumbents works out 5.5 years against our 1.8 years. You draw your own conclusion how seriously defense-minded are we. Again, take the concept of defense diplomacy which broadly represent as the peaceful application of resources from across the spectrum of defense, to achieve positive outcomes in the development of a country’s bilateral and multilateral relationships. Even Pakistan is far ahead of us in this area.

Five Categories

Here are some uncomfortable inferences from the incumbency record of our Defense Ministers. I’ve divided 35 of them in the following five categories to be adjudged in the light of above observations regarding their tenure and expectations from our Cabinet Ministers:


Incumbents i.e., those appointed to fill the gap till a decision is taken to choose who should be the Defense Minister. We had as many as eight of them, which shows how seriously we take matters of defense, namely,

Jawhar Lal Nehru (30.01.1957 — 17.04.1957)
Jawhar Lal Nehru (01.11.1962 — 21.11.1962)
Indira Gandhi (01.12.1975 — 21.12.1975)
Indira Gandhi (14.01.1980 — 15.01.1982)
V. P. Singh (24.01.1987 — 12.04.1987)
P. V. Narasimha Rao (21.06.1991 — 25.06.1991)
Pramod Mahajan (17.05.1996 — 31.05.1996)
Arun Jaiteley (05.26.2014 — temporary charge)

If this doesn’t show casualness, what else on earth can it be described ?


 This group consisting of seven, were DM’s who held office for less than a year. And before they could distinguish a mortar from a motor; a gun from a howitzer, they were transferred. They represented no improvement whatever upon the stop-gap category. It includes the following:

N. Gopal Swamy Ayangar (13.05.1952 — 10.02.1953)
Chidambaram Subramaniam (30.07.1979 — 14.01.1980)
S. B. Chavan (01.08.1984 — 31.12.1984)
P. V. Narasimha Rao (01.01.1985 — 24.09.1985)
V. P. Singh (06.12.1989 — 10.11.1990)
Chandra Shekhar (21.11.1990 – 20.06.1991)
Jaswant Singh (16.03.2001 — 14.10.2001)

What other name will you assign to these on merry-go-rounds, who spend more time in attending ceremonial duties than getting to grips with the defense issues?

D. M.’s So-called

This group consists of five who were in office for over one year but less than two, a period just enough to start understanding the problems but shifted elsewhere before they could make any worthwhile contribution. Included in this group are the following five:

Jawahar Lal Nehru (27.01.1953 — 10.01.1955)
Bansi Lal (21.12.1975 — 24.03.1977)
Rajiv Gandhi (24.09.1985 — 24.10.1987)
Sarad Pawar (25.06.1991— 05.03.1993)
Mulayam Singh Yadav (31.05.1996 — 19.03.1998)

Supposedly D.M.’s

This Group comprises of Ministers who were in office for more than two years to know the ropes but less than five to really use them. Nine of the following D.M’s belong to this group.

Dr. Kailash Nath Katjoo (10.01.1955 — 30.01.1957)
V.K. Krishan Menon (17.04.1957 — 01.11.1962)
Y.B. Chauhan (21.11.1962 — 13.11.1966)
Sardar Swarn Singh (13.11.1966 — 27.06.1970)
Jagjivan Ram (27.06.1970 — 10.10.1974)
K. C. Pant (18.06.1987 — 03.12.1989)
P.V. Narsimha Rao (05.03.1993 — 16.05.1996)
George Fernandes (19.03.1998 — 15.03.2001)
George Fernandes (15.10.2001 — 22.05.2004)

One D.M.

The only one who stayed in office for slightly less than eight years, was A K Antony  whose performance, unfortunately, was extremely mediocre. And he owed his office only to his clean image so that the money made on defense purchases went where it was meant to go.

If you don’t think all this amounts to tinkering with a most crucial issue of national concern, how else will you, dear readers, describe it?

Continued to “Art of Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory”


More by :  H.N. Bali

Top | Analysis

Views: 3390      Comments: 4

Comment As usual, you make your point well. There is no doubt that we should have a full time highly competent Defense Minister. The point that the person should be highly competent (and a confidant of Modi) is more important than having one. We may speculate on many who fit the bill, but apparently Mr. Modi does not think so. It is also apparent that for all practical purposes he is the DM. It is imperative that he should announce so and appoint himself as the DM in addition to PM. Jaitley is obviously Modi's confidant and most competent man. I still agree whole heartedly with you that we should have a full time man dedicated to run the Ministry of Defence.

15-Oct-2014 20:02 PM

Comment One hopes that this tinkering with crucial portfolios would end with the Assembly elections that are currently under way. The PM must be expecting to have a stronger hold over the party and the decision-making process if the results are in BJP’s favour. The popular sentiment in both the states is for a change and should that happen in real terms, it would surely strengthen Modiji’s hands. I am sure in the soon-to be-held cabinet reshuffle, we would see a full-time, real defence minister in place. It is hoped that the leadership has by now realized how bad the idea was to put one person in charge of two crucial ministries and also the need for a longer-term incumbent rather than making stop-gap arrangements.Also, the practice of frequent shuffling crucial portfolios should be done away with. Above all, we need a strong defence minister who would not dither on decision-making just to keep his apparent clean image intact! I am still hopeful that the present regime would help put all speculation to rest and handle the matters with the seriousness they deserve.

15-Oct-2014 08:00 AM

Comment An interesting analysis.
Given that the ministries of defense and external affairs are the obverse and the reverse of a country's political coin, one hopes you may like to take your argument forward by analyzing them in pairs over the years. By the way, one may agree that a physically ill part-timer Arun Jaitley had come up trumps in the latest crisis while the intellectually stymied AK Antony as the full fledged full timer had crippled our forces.

BS Murthy
14-Oct-2014 07:36 AM

Comment Very valuable research and analysis throwing light on the most neglected aspect of governance by all Indian Governments. The pendulum has swung between 'Lightweights' or 'Political Heavyweights' both incapable or not inclined to apply their minds to national security challenges and all of them relying on an obstructive and disruptive lethargic civil bureaucracy least bothered to monitor and execute urgent defence policies and defence acquisitions.

subhash kapila
14-Oct-2014 01:10 AM

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