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'Given who we had in the past, Parrikar is a gem of wisdom'

By Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com
Last updated on: January 20, 2015 14:45 IST
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'It is just that we have our standards so low that anybody looks good now.'

'His sort of extremely terminological inexactitude is a serious problem. He doesn't seem to understand the difference between exclusive economic zones, territorial waters...'

'I am expecting a lot of confusion because of this... Unless Parrikar starts going into the depth of the problems, he is only going to compound the problem rather than resolve it.'

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and the three Services Chiefs, the Chief of the Army Staff, General Dalbir Singh, the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral R K Dhowan, the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha lay wreaths to honour the Martyrs of the 1971 War, at the Amar Jawan Jyoti, to mark Vijay Diwas, in New Delhi on December 16, 2014. Photograph: Press Information BureauThere is no stopping retired army colonel and strategic affairs, defence and diplomacy expert Ajai Shukla when it comes to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar.

Colonel Shukla demolishes Parrikar's arguments defending the Coast Guard operation off Porbandar when it sunk an alleged terrorist boat with a Pakistani crew, or when he holds fort on the sacking of Defence and Research Development Organisation Director General Avinash Chander.

Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com spoke with Colonel Shukla for his insights on the sinking of the Pakistani boat, the DRDO chief's dismissal and his expectations from the defence minister.

In your report in Business Standard you mentioned that the Coast Guard intercepted the target vessel deep inside international waters, thereby violating international law.

If this is a violation, then who has the jurisdiction to take action against the Coast Guard and why wasn't any action taken?

There is a very grey, murky area in international law.

Territorial waters start 12 nautical miles (22.224 km) outside a country's base line; beyond that are international waters. This is mandated by the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas.

Then up to 200 nautical miles (370.4 km) out from your base line is your Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

These (where the Coast Guard sunk the Pakistani boat) are not territorial waters, these are international waters. You just have the right to exploit them economically.

There is really no convention; there is really a grey area; that's why you saw when those Italian marines killed Indian fishermen, we arrested them and brought them to India. Prosecuting them is going to be difficult because there aren't clear cut laws and conventions (about such incidents -- the sinking of the Pakistani boats and the Italian marines killing Indian fishermen).

The question of jurisdiction is very unclear on all these aspects.

What is absolutely clear, without any doubt is they (the Coast Guard and Italian marines) were in international waters (outside of 12 nautical miles from India's base line when they sunk the Pakistani boat), not in our territorial waters.

The UNCLOS does not specifically lay down if these are the violations like it is spelt out in the Indian Penal Code.

UNCLOS just mandates that these (waters beyond 12 nautical miles from the base line) are international waters and everybody is free to make use of them.

It's all very grey.

Are we clear that no action can be taken against the Coast Guard given the murky areas you spoke about?

There is nobody who can take action against the Coast Guard. The people who will pay the price are Indian fishermen who will face reprisals from the other side.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has been categorical in saying that the Pakistani boat sunk by the Coast Guard had terrorists who went down with the boat. Shouldn't one take him at face value?

There were many newspaper reports that pointed out flaws in the defence minister's version. While it is nobody's case that the media should 'kill' such stories that questions the actions of any government, do you think the media went overboard with the coverage of the sinking of this boat off Porbandar?

Do we need to draw a line while reporting incidents of this type?

We certainly need to draw a line; and that line is the line between truth and lies.

Defence Minister Parrikar told lies in this case.

Any objective evaluation of every facet of what is claimed and what is possible would show that Manohar Parrikar is trying to justify a botched operation.

One should certainly not take what he says at face value, nor should one entirely dismiss what he is saying without careful consideration.

What I am saying is the careful consideration of the facts of the case and the claims made by the defence minister don't hold water.

Do you get a sense that based on what the defence minister put forward or his ministry put forward, that this was a botched operation...

This was, in my opinion, clearly a botched operation. And the defence minister, poor man, had no choice but to justify it. He has not done a very good job.

When you come out to justify a botched operation as the defence minister of a country, it's your job to prepare well, gets your facts accurate, get a credible story in place and disseminate it credibly.

He has done a botched job of botching up a botched operation.

Are the gaps pointed out by the media in the defence minister's version valid? Like the one in your report about the Coast Guard chasing the ship for almost an hour, despite the Coast Guard's interceptor boat being more technologically advanced compared to the Pakistani boat it chased and later sunk?

He (Parrikar) said at one part of his interview that the Coast Guard officers saw that they were not dressed like normal fishermen. Then he says they did not come closer than one kilometre to this boat.

Are they observing these people wearing half pants in the middle of the night from a one kilometre distance?

Then he says, they (the Coast Guard) fired warning shots.

From a distance of one kilometre, how can you fire a warning shot with any degree of accuracy or any certainty that you are not going to hit the boat?

His arguments were just puerile.

They are an insult to the intelligence of any military person who is evaluating the situation.

What about the sacking of DRDO chief Avinash Chander? Is this a UPA versus NDA game being played on DRDO's turf? The UPA gave him an extension. The NDA sacked him.

I wouldn't say that. I have no evidence to say that.

If one were to argue it from the other viewpoint, then (V K) Saraswat (the former DRDO chief who is now a full-time member of the NITI Aayog that replaced the Planning Commission) was also a UPA appointee.

It is true that Saraswat turned around and joined the VIF (Vivekananda International Foundation, a New Delhi-based think-tank once headed by current National Security Adviser Ajit Doval) after retirement and overtly waived the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) flag.

But I don't think this is as simple as a BJP versus UPA game.

I think there are also components of a genuine wish to try and reform the DRDO... to try and bring in younger people, to try and recreate accountability for platforms (that the DRDO builds indigenously), and so on. There is all of that.

But in trying to send a signal, the government has actually shot one of the most visible symbols of success of the DRDO.

Avinash Chander has enjoyed success in almost every project that he has handled; both at the individual and chief controller level.

True, once you become chief of the DRDO, you become responsible for every project of the DRDO and as soon as you go out of the missile field and encompass all the other fields you then encounter a lot of lack of success which is not so common in the missile field.

The missile field has more success than lack of success. In the rest of the DRDO there is more lack of success than success.

To that extent, Avinash Chander was responsible for those projects that missed time deadlines and budgets.

But given his personal record it seems a little hard on the man.

So the defence minister saying he wanted somebody younger to take care of DRDO sounds puerile to you?

He is most welcome to take my six-year-old daughter!

Is the man actually trying to say that the line on which the chief (of DRDO) should be chosen is not competence versus incompetence, but youth versus age?

There are plenty of scientists who are productive and extremely useful and whose age is well beyond 75 and there are plenty of nincompoops, of the age of 35.

This is not a mature argument. One is to choose people and sack them based on the lack of competence or competence. Not based on their age. It is the same old problem.

There is a wish to reduce complex issues to a simple formula and you end up going wrong every time you try to do that.

You have to deal with complex issues as complex issues. Issues in the DRDO are not youth versus age. Issues there are competence versus incompetence. And I think that's what they have not recognised well.

Do you think Parrikar, given his clean image, will weed out middlemen from all the defence deals that take place on his watch?

No. Parrikar is not trying to weed out middlemen. He is trying to bring back middlemen.

Parrikar is reintroducing middlemen on the assumption that middlemen are not always bad. Middlemen serve a useful purpose and they need to be regulated.

Here, I believe, Parrikar has a valid viewpoint.

Just drumming out local representatives of international arms companies only drives the trade under the blanket. It is not like companies don't have representatives, or companies can do without them.

If you are doing business in India, foreign companies currently only have two alternatives: They set up an office here at enormous costs, and all that cost, make no mistake, is loaded on to the weapons system they sell to you. They are not going to pay from their own pocket. So, you end up paying more for your weapons system.

The other alternative the companies use is to have some kind of shady representatives who are never acknowledged or who lobby and act on behalf of your company, which is also counterproductive. Why do you want that to happen?

Rather have them out in the open; have a registered agent who is monitored and who can perform certain laid down functions and is prohibited from performing other functions (indulging in corrupt practices).

Do you think the regulation of these middlemen, the lobbyists, in arms deals will weed out corruption from defence deals that take place in India?

I think, once again, we are trying to reduce an extremely complex problem to a simple formula.

Corruption takes place due to multiple reasons.

Isn't that the reason the defence minister wants middlemen regulated, because he wants to curb corruption, clean up the system?

What the defence minister would do well is to start regulating his own officials in his ministry rather than regulating the middlemen.

This is like the Indira Gandhi school of thought that all corruption comes from outside, the 'foreign hand' argument.

The reason why there is corruption is because the ministry of defence is corrupt to the core. And just removing or regulating foreign arms agents is not going to do away with that corruption.

What Parrikar needs to do is track down corruption all round and especially within his ministry.

What are the three things you expect from Defence Minister Parrikar?

I expect lots of mis-statements based on his demonstrated records.

His sort of extremely terminological inexactitude is a serious problem with him. He doesn't seem to understand the difference between exclusive economic zones, territorial waters... these are technical terms... the ministry of defence is a technical ministry.

And I think if he goes on like this it is going to be very difficult for the people to get a signal of what exactly he means.

First thing I am expecting from him is a lot of confusion because of this.

The second thing I am expecting is unless Parrikar, sort of, starts going into the depth of the problems, he is only going to compound the problem rather than resolve it.

He needs to understand that problems of the ministry of defence are extremely complex and you cannot reduce it to a simple formula.

Like, a minister should not come out and say, 'Oh, all problems are because we have not been buying weaponry' and go out there, open the door and start buying weaponry, and open the coffers. That is not going to solve the problem either.

The next expectation is that Parrikar is going to have to realise the complexity of the problem other than finding simple fixes that he thinks will solve problems in his ministry.

The third thing that I am expecting is sort of more emphasis on the human dimension of the military: Pay and allowances, pensions, welfare measures, personnel policies, harassment or ex-servicemen by courts and so on... all of that is going to stop now.

He has already signalled that and that is one of his thrust areas. That's one area where he has taken useful measures and done good; that is one area that shows encouraging signs.

You said if Parrikar delves into complex issues, he will further compound them. Do you think the defence minister is a misfit?

No, I won't say he is a misfit. Given who we had in the past, given the track records of past (defence ministers), Parrikar is a gem of wisdom and light. It is just that we have our standards so low that anybody looks good now.

I am not saying Parrikar is useless; I am saying Parrikar is going to have to take time and effort to understand the complexity of the problems.

I do not discount that he has a sincere wish to change things. I don't discount that he has the ability to change things.

I just hope that he doesn't think that he has already started changing things because so far he has changed very little.

He has made lot of statements and most of them smack of simplicity rather than complex understanding of a complex problem.

Image: Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and the three Services Chiefs, the Chief of the Army Staff, General Dalbir Singh, the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral R K Dhowan, the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha lay wreaths to honour the Martyrs of the 1971 War, at the Amar Jawan Jyoti, to mark Vijay Diwas, in New Delhi on December 16, 2014. Photograph: Press Information Bureau

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