By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 1st June 19
On Friday, the new National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government announced Rajnath Singh’s appointment as India’s 29thdefence minister. His junior minister will be Shripad Naik, who was elected from North Goa.
This will be the fifth defence ministerial change in five years. United Progressive Alliance (UPA) defence minister AK Antony was followed by Arun Jaitley (May 2014), Manohar Parrikar (November 2014), Jaitley again (March 2017), Nirmala Sitharaman (September 2017) and now Singh.
The 68-year-old Singh, who served as minister for home affairs during the previous NDA government, will continue to operate from New Delhi’s Raisina Hill, shifting office barely a hundred metres from North Block to South Block.
Singh has served as president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, agriculture minister in the BJP government of Atal Behari Vajpayee and, most recently home minister from 2014-19.
As defence minister, Singh will remain an ex-officio member of the powerful Cabinet Committee on Security, which he also attended as the home minister.
By virtue of his long political experience and cordial relations with opposition party members, Singh is certain to also be a member of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs.
Yet, as defence minister, Singh could find his operating space circumscribed within the government. He will brush up against Home Minister Amit Shah in matters relating to internal security in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), against Finance Minister Sitharaman in securing funds for defence capital expenditure on modernisation; and in long range planning against National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, who heads the powerful Defence Planning Committee (DPC).
The DPC, which was constituted in April 2018, has effectively taken over planning functions of the defence ministry. Convened under the NSA’s chairmanship, the DPC brings under him all the top defence ministry functionaries, including the three service chiefs, the defence secretary and the chief of the integrated defence staff.
The DPC is tasked to “analyse and evaluate all relevant inputs relating to defence planning”, including “national defence and security priorities, foreign policy imperatives, operational directives and associated requirements, relevant strategic and security-related doctrines, defence acquisition and infrastructure development plans, including the 15-year Long-Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP), defence technology and development of the Indian defence industry and global technological advancement.”
This has effectively shifted many of the defence ministry’s most important functions to the National Security Council.
On Singh’s immediate agenda are elements of both policy and procurement. On the policy front, the ministry must finalise the “defence production policy” (DPrP), the draft of which was issued in 2018 with unrealistic targets such as catapulting India into the world’s top five defence producers, and achieving self-reliance by 2025 in building fighters, helicopters, warships and tanks. Uncertainty also shrouds the mooted “strategic partner” (SP) policy, through which the private sector is to build major defence platforms using technology from global defence majors.
Also languishing are urgent procurements, including those of submarines, aircraft carriers, minesweepers, fighters, helicopters and artillery guns. With the defence budget having steadily dropped over the last five years as a percentage of government spending, Singh will have to negotiate higher budgetary allocations with Sitharaman.
With defence preparedness unsatisfactory, Singh will have to choose between buying foreign weaponry quickly and the slower job of developing indigenous industry. In February 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had stated: “Even a 20 to 25 per cent reduction in imports could directly create an additional 100,000 to 120,000 highly skilled jobs in India.” Ensuring that happens has fallen to the lot of Rajnath Singh.