NEW DELHI: When Nirmala Sitharaman signed the visitors’ book of the country’s only underground airbase in Barmer district of Rajasthan in 2001, she did not know she would be the first defence minister to visit the critical IAF base. George Fernandez was the last defence minister who had visited the base, hardly a few kilometres from the Pakistan border.
When Sitharaman took over as the country’s first full-time woman defence minister, she made it loud and clear that she would be a 24x7 minister. Her first week in the Raksha Mantri office has already been full of action with visits to forward areas and military stations. Now, a visit to Srinagar and forward locations on the Line of Control is in the offing. An economist by education, Sitharaman has already started taking out of the box decisions.
On Day One in her office on the first floor of South Block, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman decided to hold daily briefings from the three Service Chiefs to be more updated on the security situation on the borders. Besides, to expedite decision-making, she also asked for daily morning briefings by the Defence Secretary on ministerial matters.
She has made it clear that her priority will be the armed forces’ preparedness and to equip soldiers with the best of resources available. On her first day as Defence Minister, she called the Director-General (Acquisition) for first-hand information of new acquisitions and hurdles in procuring military hardware. A meeting followed with the Financial Adviser (Defence Services) to understand the budgetary constraints if any.
Sitharaman began her journey as Defence Minister with a visit to Indian naval station INS Hansa in Goa, where she took the Guard of Honour. Dressed in a silk cotton south Indian sari, she even impressed naval officers. She flagged off the Indian Navy’s all-women crew for circumnavigation—INS Tarini—in the presence of her predecessor and now Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar. Immediately after, she flew to Uttarlai airbase in Rajasthan, the country’s only underground airbase. She also interacted with air warriors to understand the circumstances they work in.
The next day, she visited Army base Sir Creek in Gujarat and went to forward locations. She was briefed by local commanders on operations and strategic issues at the border with Pakistan. Then came her visit to Naliya Air Base in Gujarat in an armed helicopter. Interaction with personnel was aimed at understanding ground level challenges. On her way back, she made a short visit to the Mirage fighter base in Gwalior.
A senior Army officials claimed that her back-to-back visits to military stations and airbases will make her popular in the armed forces.
Facing threat from Pakistan in the west and China in the east, the armed forces have to maintain vigil at all times, and for this, they need state-of-the-art weapons and other allied systems. Sitharaman is racing against time as the tenure of the NDA regime comes to an end in 2019 and it will like to showcase that the government believes in delivering. Keeping this in mind, she has decided to hold meetings of the Defence Acquisition Council—the highest body to decide on acquisition matters—every 15 days to address the issue of shortage of arms and ammunition.
The NDA government has cleared defence proposals worth over `2 lakh crore since it came to power in 2014. While some projects have taken off, others—including the manufacture of six submarines here as part of Make in India policy—are lagging behind. This proposal worth over `60,000 crore was given the nod two years ago.
As the Prime Minister wants to make India a major hub for manufacturing world class hi-tech weapon systems, Sitharaman will have to clear the blockades to ensure smooth implementation of strategic partnership and other contracts. Incidentally, defence contracts have a long gestation period before the deals are inked, and the new minister will have to speed up the procurement processes.
On Steady Ground
Born in a Tamil family in the temple town of Madurai, Nirmala Sitharaman did her Masters in Economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Indo-European Textile Trade was the focus of her draft PhD thesis. She served as an assistant to economists in the Agricultural Engineers Association, London. She subsequently worked as senior manager (research and analysis) with Price WaterhouseCooper, London. During this time, she also briefly worked with BBC World Service.