CHANDIGARH: In just three weeks, the new Raksha Mantri has moved from the top of the charts to below the mid-way point.

Unless she understands and applies her mind to the legitimate tasks of the armed forces and their pride and ethos, she is unlikely to be accepted fully and the charts will keep sliding south.

Her latest and only ridiculous order, so far, is asking/tasking the army to clean up garbage and litter in the high altitude areas, left behind by uncaring and uneducated tourists. Preposterous comes to mind immediately, but let me not jump the gun, so that the reader fully understands what I am talking about.

The media had dubbed the recent cabinet reshuffle as the BJP plan for the 2019 General Elections and the appointment of the new Raksha Mantri (RM) more in gender terms rather than abilities! Maybe so, but my take, as well as the bulk of the military fraternity, was a sense of relief that this government has stopped treating the Defence Portfolio as a temporary pastime for its cabinet ministers.

It seemed that after three years of governance, the Prime Minister had at last learnt that Defence was neither a part-time portfolio, nor one for a light-weight leader, who had to struggle/muddle through the maze of the entrenched party members, who thought only about their own clout and the powers they wield.

They had become carpet –baggers, with their own agendas; and were prone to look down on light-weights as a species to be sent back to their small fiefdoms. They had no time or inclination to change the entrenched system.

Unlike a political novice like me, seasoned punters of the political scene were convinced from day one that an IIT graduate like Manohar Parrikar would not be allowed to last in the rough and tumble political system of Delhi, where power and pelf combined with the Indian Crab Syndrome had prevailed for decades and continues to flourish, irrespective of changes in the ruling parties. But let me not digress!

Prime Minister Modi, despite being a seasoned politician rewarded a loser at the elections with the two most important portfolios, viz. Finance and Defence, possibly because of political compulsions and maybe inadequate talent. He glossed over the well-known fact that the incumbent did not like the military, as he blamed them for his losing the only election he fought in his long political career!

However, when he brought back the gentleman again as a temporary stand-in, it was clear that he did not understand the importance of the defence portfolio! If he had gone back in time, he may have realized that giving two major portfolios to one person are fraught with danger. Let me amplify.

When the then RM, during PM Vajpayee’s time was forced to resign and Jaswant Singh, the competent Minister of External Affairs was given temporary charge of the Defence Ministry, the disastrous Agra Summit took place, possibly as there was one less adviser at the cabinet level!

The importance of a permanent Raksha Mantri is obvious, as (s)he is a member not just of the Cabinet Committee of Security (CCS), but also of the Cabinet Committee of Political Affairs (CCPA) and Economic Affairs (CCEA), the three most important policy-making committees of the Executive. (S)he is also a member of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet. Independent advice is therefore essential, so that major policy decisions are taken after due consultations.

With the above background, let us now talk about the new RM. My initial reaction to her appointment was positive – as in my view she was a professional; was intelligent; dedicated; and possessed common sense.

The last is most important for an RM, as it is the ‘men behind the gun’ who are the most important part of the military and there is need for application of mind before issuing orders and instructions that affect them. I had observed these talents in her, initially when she was the official spokesperson of her Party, and later when she was given the important commerce portfolio. She had handled her portfolio well and not only used her considerable abilities to good effect, but built up a positive reputation of a feisty lady who kept the rapacious bureaucracy in line and carried out her assignments quietly, without the usual fanfare that our political leaders revel in.

I therefore welcomed her elevation to head an extremely important Ministry, especially as the indolent MoD officials, including four Secretary-level officials, need a strong leader to keep them in line. I earnestly hope that she is able to deflate their egoistic image of themselves!

Let me now come to the main purpose of this article. Many military and other analysts have offered their advice about defence and military affairs. Initially I had also planned to do the same, but before I could do so, the new RM has given me an opportunity to highlight the incorrect orders she has issued to the MoD (read armed forces) relating to handling litter.

Apparently this was done at the behest of PMO to clean up garbage left by tourists in high altitude areas and other sundry instructions regarding cleaning up military stations, cantonments and bases. These orders are absurd, to put it mildly.

Obviously, no one has reflected on some similar orders that had been issued in the late 1950’s that eventually resulted in the 1962 fiasco, as outlined in the succeeding paragraphs.

Project Amar (construction of barracks and family accommodation by troop labour) was carried out at the behest of the then RM-Krishna Menon, despite objections by the then Army Chief – General KS Thimayya, and were implemented by the ambitious Bijji Kaul, then GOC 4 Infantry Division at Ambala. The result was no training by the Division for war.

Even when the Division had been ordered to move to NEFA (now part of Arunachal Pradesh), plans were made by the then RM for Project Amar II, which were mercifully jettisoned at the behest of the Army hierarchy. When the war with China erupted in 1962, it was this very division that was annihilated. One need not go into any more details, except to say that if you use the armed forces for carrying out non-military tasks, the result is catastrophic.

Our northern borders continue to be in dispute. Hopefully, the sterling role played by the army in handling the over 70 days stand-off with China’s troops in the area of Dokalam only recently must be fresh in everyone’s mind. It ended well as our troops were well trained and well lead. Everyone agrees that till the border problem is solved, such incidents will continue. Yet, the mandarins sitting in the PMO have issued a stupid and illogical order stating that the army will clean litter left behind by uncaring tourists in high altitude areas, obviously abandoning their operational tasks and training. It is the dumbest order I have heard in the last half a century, if not more. The MoD as usual has acted as postmen and forwarded it to the armed forces and the new RM has publicly announced it during her maiden visit to Western Command!

The authority of the civil administration extends to the remotest corners of the country and includes the entire stretch of all land borders of India. It is the job of the civil administration to administer all assigned areas under their control. Why are they first not ensuring that no tourists leave any litter and if they fail to do so, they have the resources, funds and authority to clean up. The armed forces, both in field areas, peace stations and different types of bases have always kept their habitat clean, green and hygienic. They are actually models for the civilians to emulate. So why have such orders/instructions been issued?

I must also point out that in the last Pay Commission, despite vehement opposition by the armed forces, high altitude allowances for civil officials of all categories have been decreed to be more than the soldiers! Are they earning them?

It appears to me that since the Swach Bharat Abhiyan has made little headway, the government wants to boast of at least cleaning up the litter of tourists so that their propaganda machinery can at least save face by tom-toming this!

I would urge the RM, the PMO and the MoD to rescind this absurd order immediately.

(The writer is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff)