In her first interview after the national election results were announced last week, Union defence minister in the outgoing cabinet Nirmala Sitharaman speaks about how the Indian Air Force strike on Balakot in Pakistan shaped people’s opinion ahead of polls. With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning 303 seats, she says that the Rafale controversy is now effectively buried and Congress president Rahul Gandhi should apologize for misleading the nation. Edited excerpts:
How was this win emotionally different for you, for the party?
It’s one thing to fight the election when you are in the opposition. The drive with which your workers fight will obviously be very combative. So that was the large feature of 2014. But here, you had to be combative for things which were not required. Otherwise, it was more like as it is. If you are not in opposition, you don’t need to be combative, you try to be a bit more elaborate with the people about what we have done, what needs to be further done, why we want to come back, all that could have been done with a lot less combativeness. But the combative nature had to be brought into this campaign because you thought the opposition was spending time on things that were not germane to the larger exercise of the campaign and you are trying to have a tussle with them on almost every issue which we thought was absolutely taking away from the narrative which we wanted. And the narrative that we wanted to have was definitely on the work that we had done in order to bring in “sabka saath, sabka vikas" and the other that you are in safer hands with the prime minister (Narendra Modi) as regards to national security. But it was like we are not interested in talking about any of this but we will call you names. So that’s the difference, I would say.
How much did Balakot help in setting the narrative in the elections?
I really can’t measure how much it helped. But I can tell you one thing, lots of people have spoken to me about this who said “but we thought issues related to the border particularly issues related to Pakistan were very much north-centric." So, states in the north would have some connect with the topic but when they went south, they realised that it had a resonance there too. When people like us go there, meet up with the workers, speak to them about the achievements and then go to the public meeting or the roadshow or sometimes in door-to-door campaign, you talk about everything that you want to claim credit for—whether it is Ujjwala, whether it is Ujala, whether it is the Jan Dhan Yojana, in public meetings, in the south too, I used to have pieces of paper coming from the audience saying “will there be one more surgical strike?" Or “tell us about Balakot." So Balakot was in the minds of the people. So you had that resonance in the audience. So you couldn’t but address the issue of how the prime minister was decisive in these matters. So I would presume it has had a very strong resonance. When it comes to terror attack, surgical strike or Balakot, I found that in the south too there was a great deal of curiosity, wanting to know more about it. So in terms of the impact on vote, since I found this on the top of everybody’s mind, it would have had a very strong impact.
So it was a pan-India issue...
Yes, this was not just in the south, in Kolkata, in West Bengal, in the North-East, Ladakh wherever I went, Kerala, I was in Gujarat, also in Mumbai. Mumbai had two things —both related to national security and both related to terror. The Mumbai meeting happened, post the Sri Lanka (Easter Sunday) bombings. And so even there, this issue of handling terror came up. In one of the meetings, there was a Roman Catholic audience, even they stood up to ask questions on this. They wanted to know what this government would do to make sure that their community will not be targeted by global terrorism.
So between the two ideas of “I feel safer with Modi" and “we should teach Pakistan a lesson," which of the two were uppermost in people’s minds?
Both were there but some expressed the first one better, in Bengaluru “teach Pakistan a lesson" was very loud. “We feel safer with Modi" was more in Maharashtra, West Bengal had “teach Pakistan a lesson" more. Like that I could profile which came up more where. But both were equally heard.
Has Balakot hit the reset on our national security paradigm?
The national security paradigm for India earlier, when I say earlier, before Modi ie 2014-19, was always framed within this presumption that Pakistan had built a narrative that “look we are a nuclear power, you be sure of what you want to do." And that, I cannot say firmly that is the only reason, but that was one of the reasons that conditioned the mind of India when you are talking about your strategic paradigms. As a result, it would not have been beyond the Armed Forces even post Mumbai (in 2008) to have responded in such a way to contain terror from Pakistan. But that narrative that Pakistan had been building—successfully I think because we didn’t take a decisive call to say “No- sorry! You have not taken enough action. And we had the source so we are hitting at terror. We are not at war with you but I am sorry terror-related action is inadequate." We didn’t respond like that. And my strong presumption is that if only we had at that time taken some deterrent action even as we sent dossiers with evidence, even as you repeatedly gave additional evidence, if some deterrent action had been taken, between 2009 and 2014, the number of terror attacks that happened in India would not have happened—is my presumption. It would have deterred the terrorists. And we have called their bluff.
Now that you have called their bluff, there is a downside risk of them reacting and this escalating.
Obviously, the downside risk which you are talking about is definitely the outcome of a narrative that Pakistan had built all the while. And because you are suffering from the terror that is coming from there, yes we will factor in the downside risks. But that doesn’t mean that having factored it we sit without taking any kind of action. Because Pakistan has not moved an inch.
Amit Shah, when we interviewed him recently, said that the number one priority as long as the BJP remains in power will be defence. As a government, how do you respond to this?
In a way, I think this is in place from 2014, that agenda item has been in place and on the top of the table and we have been responding to that objective in that during (Manohar) Parikkar’s term, he had initiated quite a few quick studies to make sure where kind of reforms will have to take place. As a result, if you notice between 2014 and September of 2016, the capital budget was not fully utilized. From September of 2016, the expenditure on capital acquisitions had gradually increased. The reports had come in end of 2017 and early 2018. So when I came in September 2017, the capital acquisitions had acquired such a speed because they had facilitated my ground and revenue expenditure powers because in 2014, if you remember, there was this desperate debate on the ‘10 i’ requirements—in the sense the debate was, are we suffering from a shortage of ammunitions? If there were to be a 10-day intensive war—that is your ‘10 i’ war, does India have enough ammunition to handle a situation like that? And at that time, the narrative outside based even on the inputs given by those veterans was probably no. So rapidly in order to purchase ammunition, to fulfil your ‘10 i’ requirement, we delegated powers to the vice chiefs of the three forces. So that is one of the things that moved very fast.
On capital acquisitions I moved faster, because one of the things I thought was not justifiable was that the Defence Acquisition Council was meeting once in three months or later. I said what is so sacrosanct about it, why can’t it meet twice in a month? We started reforming the acquisition process and by holding two meetings in a month, we rapidly caught up with what has been pending for long in terms of capital acquisitions. Today, I can tell you that we are on top of it, there is nothing pending. That’s one of the big things this government has done. We have laid the foundations for both capital and revenue expenditure. Last year, the budget was also increased—not inclusive of pensions—the budget otherwise has been increased and we have fully utilized it too, so I am actually happy to say whoever is the next Raksha Mantri they will have a lot of catching up to do.
You just said whoever is the next Raksha Mantri..it could very well be you.
God knows..I don’t know.
One such acquisition ran into a political storm. Now that the elections have closed, have we now heard the end of Rafale?
I would say it was absolutely baseless to have even started by the Congress party. A party like the Congress which of course I will stand up anywhere and say did not run the ministry of defence without, if I have to put it politely, middle men. Middlemen, kickbacks—all this was commonplace. But even then you would know where to search for data to say probably there is a suspicion, I want to look into that document, I will prove that there was a kickback paid. The fact that for almost one year they were going on a Holy Grail chase, knowing very well that they are not getting anywhere! It clearly was “How could this government run without any corruption? This is probably something we can mislead the public, so go ahead with it"—is the only thing I can see as the basis for this campaign. Otherwise, who doesn’t know where you have to look to get a document, in the sense not illegally, but at what end could there be a malpractice?
The Congress is an old party, it has governed this country for 40-50 years. It knows how the MoD (ministry of defence) operates. Of course, MoD under Modi does not operate the way it did under the Congress. But the fact is that you know how the MoD functions. You are going on a fishing expedition. That’s where I say there was nothing at all and strictly speaking there was nothing in it from day one that was mala fide. But then, because they started on this they did not know where to get off. Even after the Supreme Court gives you a verdict, you have no respect whatsoever for that institution. So “no, no, no, something is pending, the CAG will come up with it." The CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) comes up with a report, even they are alright with it but you still are on it. And knowingly or unknowingly when he (Congress president Rahul Gandhi) put his foot in his mouth “Supreme Court has also said Chowkidar ne chori ki" then reality struck. It struck him so badly that he had to apologize in court. But I would think he owed a sorry to the entire nation for having misled the country.