NEW DELHI: Manohar Parrikar is gradually finding out that the Defence Ministry is not a stroll in the park. And while the military accepts a well tied dhoti as in the case of his predecessor A.K.Antony it is does not look kindly crumpled shirts, creased trousers and a hands-in-the-pocket approach to inspecting guards of honour.

As a result the grapevine these days is flooded with rumours of a Cabinet reshuffle that has Parrikar being replaced ‘most certainly.” This does seem like wishful thinking though as neither a reshuffle that requires an adequate supply of talent to be reshuffled, nor Parrikar’s removal is in sight. In fact he is in the good books of those who matter, having easy access to his alma mater the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh where he is one of the few Ministers to attend brainstormings.

Parrikar was the Chief Minister of Goa, having been pushed into the BJP by the RSS in an experiment that worked. He is an IIT graduate, a period in between serving the RSS as the ‘Chief Instructor.’ Unlike some he does not hide this background, rather flaunts it, and is known to have a good relationship with the Sangh as well as with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

However, the Union Defence Ministry is not Goa as the Minister has found to his chagrin. And the men and women in uniform cannot be mollycoddled with promises of candy. He was the fall guy in the One Rank One Pension controversy, and while initially Parrikar tried to negotiate for the striking ex-servicemen the figures did not add up for the Finance Ministry. The Defence Minister seems to have dropped the issue altogether, and is now one of those vocally critical of the retired veterans who have refused to accept the final package being offered to them.

As a senior officer told The Citizen, “in just a year or so he has become highly unpopular with the military.” More so as he barely delivers even for the serving forces who do not find in him a Minister whose support they can be sure of. More so as no one is certain to what extent he is being taken in confidence by the PM , and whether he actually understands what is going on. For instance, it was clear to military observers that when PM Modi decided to intervene in the Rafale deal during his visit to France earlier by announcing a unilateral decision to directly purchase 36 ready to fly Rafale fighter jets, Parrikar appeared as surprised as the others around him.

Till several days after the visit and the ‘new’ deal, the Minister’s responses remained highly inadequate. Parrikar spent more time in evading questions than answering these initially. An example:

“That is the only solution. In fact, only [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi could have taken this kind of decision. [When it comes to] Prime Ministers in the past many years, probably Atalji [Bihari Vajpayee] showed some decision-making ability. However, I would like to add that the decision is not complete. The decision is only to acquire 36 [aircraft] at better terms. I was watching the Congress press conference, I was surprised they are not aware of exactly what had happened. They probably didn’t even take the required trouble of getting more information. Actually, [Congress leader and former Defence Ministry A.K.] Antony should have got it because he knows so many in the Defence Ministry. The decision is a joint statement at this moment. The rest is being discussed.”

A month after the visit he still was not clear about what had really transpired. In an interview to the Economic Times on May 11 the Minister said in what was perhaps his most elaborate response to the Rafale deal till then:

“On the Rafale deal, for example, we are ordering just 36. If we had ordered 126, it would have been 3.75 times the cost. Yes, there are money issues but spending more effectively is more important.”

And again, “The basic message is that the Rafale deal has been restricted in number. By doing this, we will free about Rs 60,000-65,000 crore - money which will be used for Make in India. Even in the Rafale deal, we will have 50% offsets. So this will take care of partial Make in India. But more than that, we now have money released for activities that can be carried out in improving and speeding up the LCA (Light Combat Aircraft). We can have 10-12 squadrons as MiG 21 replacements.”

He was categorical and almost triumphant as he told the media that, “By buying 36 Rafale fighters at a price less than (what was quoted in response to) the earlier tender for 126 aircraft, I have saved the cost of 90 Rafales. We will use that money to buy Tejas LCAs”. This seemed to be the first confirmation of what was being discussed in military circles that the original contract for 126 fighters had been reduced to the final 36.

But not so for within a day the Minister seemed to have had yet another change of heart, or mind. And instead of following up on the remarks he retracted with a tightlipped, “"I'm not saying we will buy more Rafale; I'm not saying we will not buy more.”

And then later Parrikar announced that a”committee headed by Air Marshal S.B.P. Sinha is all set to begin government-to-government negotiations with France for procurement of Rafale fighter jets for the Indian Air Force, and the multi-billion dollar deal will be finalised as early as possible.” A French delegation has arrived in New Delhi, he said, to begin the negotiations.

This was on May 17. On May 26 ,instead of giving some idea of the pricing---whether it is indeed going to be 35 per cent cheaper---;whether it is a stand alone deal with the French as that is to be decided by the government and not the Indian military or the French authorities; whether the remaining fighters be manufactured by the Indian private sector in collaboration with the French Parrikar said in a rather garbled response, “I will not talk about it until all talks are complete. Then we will come very clear, transparently. You don’t discuss issues when they are under negotiation and consideration. It will be foolish. It’s just like you don’t discuss publicly what is in the court if you a party. Third person can always do it. I can’t do it because I am a party to it, my ministry is a party to it. Let them have the talks, let them come out with some conclusion… It can assure you it will be so transparent you will not have to ask again.”

But for the crease conscious military all this and more can be forgiven so long as the Minister at least dresses the part. His crumpled shirts, glasses loosely dangling around his neck, ruffled hair and trousers that don’t seem to have ever seen an iron serves as the red rag for the well starched military bull