Nirmala Sitharaman has taken over as the first woman full-fledged defence minister. Her appointment has raised hope that there will be some stability in the ministry. In three years of Modi government the crucial ministry has seen three defence ministers.
Prime minister Modi started his tenure by appointing Arun Jaitley as the defence and finance minister. The dual charge meant that it was only a make-shift arrangement. Manohar Parrikar replaced Jaitley. He started off showing lot of promise but just when he started getting the hang of the issues, Parrikar went back to Goa as chief minister. Jaitley was back holding dual portfolios of defence and finance.
Demands were being made in the security establishment to have a full time defence minister. Nirmala Sitharaman’s elevation to head a ministry on the Raisina Hill shows the confidence shown on her by the prime minister. She comes to South Block at a time when the ministry is struggling to push through big ticket reforms and streamlining acquistion procedures.
In one of the first decisions after coming to power, the Modi government had allowed 100 per cent FDI in defence but the inflow of funds has been extremely slow. The procurement rules have been streamlined but the grand policy of allowing private companies to participate in big-ticket projects through strategic partnerships still requires lot of clarity. The modernisation of armed forces remain a big concern as a recent report of Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) pointed out that army’s war reserves have only marginally improved under the Modi government.
The years of inventory backlog is yet to be cleared. Some of the big acquisiton projects are still move at slow pace. The army urgently requires new assault rifles, the IAF is facing acute shortage of fighter jets and the navy’s submarine fleet is tottering. The much needed higher defence management reforms has remained a work in progress.
Nirmala Sitharman has a task cut out for her. But she has got only two years to make any lasting impact which is too short a time period for any defence minister as the issues are so complicated that months are required to get even the complete grasp of the problems.