Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s tenure of nearly six months as Defence Minister of India, his second in this government, was again short but eventful. It was marked by key developments, including finalisation of path-breaking Strategic Partnership Policy and a 75-day standoff in Doklam Sector with China.
Jaitley took on additional charge of the Defence Ministry on March 14, after Manohar Parrikar quit the Union Cabinet to return to Goa as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed its government in the coastal state.
It was Jaitley’s second stint as the country’s Defence Minister — the first was when the Narendra Modi government came to power in May 2014. That term lasted till November 2014, when Parrikar was brought from Goa to handle the key ministry.
This time around, Jaitley took reins of the Defence Ministry at a time when the talks of September 2015 surgical strikes across the Line of Control in Pakistan had not yet died down and tension on the India-Pakistan border had intensified due to ceasefire violations and infiltrations.
However, a task cut out for Jaitley in his additional responsibility was to give direction to the government’s ambitious plan to push domestic manufacturing in defence, with the Strategic Partnership Policy in the pipeline for long.
While the new Defence Procurement Policy was released in 2016, the chapter on Strategic Partnership remained pending and appeared to be stuck.
According to Defence Ministry sources, Jaitley personally pushed the policy, which was finally cleared by the Defence Acquisition Council on May 20. The Union Cabinet “took note” of it on May 24.
As per the policy, Indian industry majors would be identified as strategic partners, and would in turn tie up with global original equipment manufacturers to seek technology transfer and manufacturing know-how to set up domestic manufacturing infrastructure and supply chains in defence manufacturing.
Jaitley, shortly before the Cabinet reshuffle, also led the biggest reform in the Indian Army after independence as the government decided to redeploy around 57,000 Army personnel in a bid to increase the tooth-to-tail ratio of the Army.
He also pitched for reforms in the Ordnance Factory Board. In another first, the Ministry decided to give early retirement to 13 Group A officers of the Indian Ordnance Factories Service.
Jaitley’s stint would also be remembers for what was one of the longest stand-off with China in the Sikkim Sector that began on June 16 and continued for two-and-half months.
It saw India increase its troop deployment along the eastern border. Both sides finally decided to withdraw their respective troops last week.
Increased tensions with China during the standoff also saw a scuffle between the troops of the two countries in Ladakh on August 15, wherein soldiers threw stones and indulged in fisticuffs.
Asked about his stint on Sunday, Jaitley said: “I enjoyed every minute as Defence Minister. I loved the job and had two opportunities to serve. I think the systems in the ministry are excellent. I have the satisfaction that in a brief period, we did a lot — from strategic partnership to implementing the Pay Commission recommendations, resolving anomalies in the Pay Commission recommendations….”
“My last decisions on streamlining the ordnance factories, and redeployment of 57,000 personnel from non-essential areas are important directional changes. It is a great job, but the Finance Ministry is an important job too. It is not possible to look after these two ministries indefinitely… the Prime Minister was aware of these constraints,” the Minister added.