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What kind of defence minister will Parrikar make?

By Aditi Phadnis
Last updated on: November 09, 2014 17:35 IST
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The Goa chief minister does not fit the paradigm of a standard politician yet he can be relied on to add a new dynamic to proceedings at the Centre, Aditi Phadnis reports 

The Indian defence forces, so proud of their spiffy spit and polish, are in for a shock. If reports that Manohar Parrikar is going to be India's next defence minister are true, they could soon have a minister who will think nothing of turning up at the Infantry Day parade in chappals, will sit in the front seat of the car with the driver rather than the back seat, and is entirely capable of dropping bombshells. As he did in August.

In August, Parrikar apologised to the Goa Assembly for using a certain word that begins with an "N" to describe people from the continent of Africa.

His apology was typical. "The word has two meanings. One is a river in the Amazon; and the second is derogatory. If someone is hurt, I apologise for that," he said after a written reply submitted to a question in the Assembly about the arrest of an African in a drug-related offence had that word in the text. He offered to replace the word with "an unknown person with a dark complexion", succeeding only in making things worse.

Parrikar is not discreet. He is not diplomatic (he once likened L K Advani to pickle gone rancid on account of ageing). But he is a qualified metallurgical engineer from IIT and is likely to grasp the strengths and weaknesses of the Defence Research and Development Organisation faster than any of his predecessors. Because he knows this, he tends to be arrogant and impatient.

And yet, he is a man of simple personal habits. No convoys of cars accompany Parrikar, there are no Gypsy vans loaded with personal security. Local newspapers noted how he tended to -- in the newly expanding cities of Goa that are choked with cars but no civic consciousness -- get out of his vehicle to spontaneously start directing traffic. He was once spotted eating fruit salad at a roadside shack in Panjim.

This is the first time he will be serving at the Centre. Parrikar became chief minister of Goa for the first time in October 2000 (raising the strength of the Bharatiya Janata Party or the BJP from 4 MLAs in 1994 to 17 in 2002). But he served for just 2 years. He lost power because of his own mistakes he cheerily admits, but was back in office 4 months later to rule as chief minister till 2005 when he lost the elections largely on account of his tendency to believe that only he was honest and everyone else was a thief.

This blind belief in himself kept him in the Opposition till 2012. He conceded that in his last tenure, withdrawing Good Friday and the Feast of Francis St Xavier from the list of government holidays was a mistake. The BJP has not been popular with the Christians in Goa. But in the run-up to the 2012 elections, Parrikar made a special effort to reach out. In 2006, Wilfred Mesquita joined the BJP and contested the South Goa Lok Sabha constituency on the symbol of the lotus. In 2012, the BJP fielded 6 Christian MLAs and supported two others. All 8 won.

Tough questions were asked in the course of the campaign, especially about the BJP's role in the Graham Staines episode in Odisha. But Parrikar handled them with aplomb -- including apologising for disrespecting Good Friday. This uncharacteristic humility paid off. The BJP has 21 seats against its 2002 tally of 17 seats when it had to rely on the support of other smaller parties and independents to form a government. With its allies, the BJP currently has 26 MLAs in a House of 40.

During this tenure as chief minister, Parrikar has once again created a controversy by saying to The New York Times: "India is a Hindu nation in the cultural sense. A Catholic in Goa is also Hindu culturally because his practices don't match with Catholics in Brazil except in the religious aspect. A Goan Catholic's way of thinking and practice matches a Hindu's." These remarks continue to get a response on the social media.

What kind of defence minister will he make? You can either be an efficient defence minister or a saint: as A K Antony discovered to his chagrin. Parrikar is sure to put his own stamp on the job. He is not a man who will countenance micro-management or undue interference. So you can be sure that his membership of the Cabinet Committee on Security and the Cabinet will introduce a new dynamic to proceedings. He is going to the BJP's newest MP from Uttar Pradesh in the Rajya Sabha. But he will not beg and he will not bend: remember, this is the man who criticised the fact that riots in Gujarat took place at all, blaming it on the administration, but added that Narendra Modi was not responsible for his handling of them because he was (after all) a new chief minister. So be prepared for some turbulence in government.

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Aditi Phadnis
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