By Ajai Shukla
Editorial comment, Business Standard
19th March 2019
With the passing of Manohar Parrikar, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has lost not just a successful chief minister and former defence minister, but also one of its few leaders with the ability and will to bridge the political spectrum and reach out to Goa’s minority Catholic and Muslim communities. True, much of this has to do with Mr Parrikar’s origins in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious state, where religious polarisation does not wins election. Even so, he deserves credit for rising above his Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh origins, obtaining a modern scientific education, working as a technology entrepreneur and, later, providing Goa a relatively liberal, tolerant administration during three tenures as chief minister, two of them truncated.
Opinion is divided on his effectiveness as defence minister, but Parrikar quickly understood the need to empower the private sector to drive indigenous defence production. His willingness to throw open the doors of his office to private industrialists won him a loyal following in the private sector and provided him a valuable reality check on the advice provided by sometimes hidebound administrators who preferred the status quo. He established a “Saturday Club” where he, or his senior officials, met regularly with executives of private defence industry leading to a better understanding within the defence ministry of how the private sector was institutionally discriminated against in defence manufacture. Parrikar did more to “level the playing field” than any other defence minister before or after.
Facing a ministerial culture where decisions were often held up by the fear of consequences, Parrikar replaced what he openly criticised as a “culture of suspicion” with his own bold decision-making style that cleaved through the Gordian knot of One Rank, One Pension; and other issues that his predecessors preferred to avoid. The ambitious deadlines he set for himself suggested he would have liked to move faster. The reality, however, is that he could not.
Throughout his 28 months as defence minister, Parrikar remained acutely aware of the importance of retaining a secure political base. Functioning from New Delhi, he remained the de facto chief minister of Goa, flying down on most weekends to set policy and adjudicate disputes within a fractious coalition. His stature across the political spectrum in Goa was underlined after the 2017 elections, when the Congress emerged the largest party, but the BJP persuaded smaller parties and independents to form a coalition around Parrikar. That took him back to Goa where, despite falling critically ill, he continued functioning as chief minister till the end.
Political turmoil in Goa following his death vindicates Parrikar’s belief that he was all that held the BJP-led coalition together. Without a BJP leader who can match his stature, coalition partners like the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and the Goa Forward Party are reconsidering the cost of their support. Leaders from these politically opposed parties have made it clear that they had come together under Mr Parrikar, not the BJP. In its letter to the Governor demanding a smooth transition, the Congress has paid Parrikar a backhanded compliment, writing: “Now, after Mr Parrikar’s death, BJP has no allies.” The BJP, which has been on the lookout for more talent in the government, will surely feel his absence.