Unfinished reform agenda, acquisition, theaterisation of command among key focus areas for Rajnath Singh

Rajnath Singh returned to South Block on Tuesday morning to commence his second stint as Defence Minister. In his second term, he would oversee consolidation of military reforms initiated in the previous stint, and accelerate the unfinished agenda on the theaterisation of command, major acquisitions, export of armaments, and stabilise the border with China.

The Defence Minister’s office said Singh took over charge at 10 am on Tuesday, and later left for Bhubaneswar to oversee selection of the Odisha Chief Minister, after the BJP defeated the BJD in the assembly elections, held along with parliamentary polls.

After portfolios were announced on Monday evening, Rajnath Singh, who will turn 73 next month, expressed his gratitude to PM Narendra Modi “for his continued trust and confidence” in him.

“I shall continue to serve our motherland as India’s Defence Minister. Safeguarding India’s borders will remain our topmost priority, and we will continue protecting India’s integrity & sovereignty. Under the visionary leadership of PM Modi, we will rededicate ourselves to strengthen ‘Make in India’ and take defence manufacturing and exports to greater heights,” Singh posted on X.

Sanjay Seth, a second time Member of Parliament from Ranchi, Jharkhand, took over as Minister of State (MoS) for Defence. Seth, along with his wife, were also present in Singh’s office in South Block at the time of the latter assuming charge as the Defence Minister.

While Singh retained the Defence Ministry portfolio, Ajay Bhatt, who was his MoS in the previous tenure, was dropped by Modi. This, despite the fact that Bhatt won from the Udhampur seat with over a margin of over 7.5 lakhs. The BJP chose to bring in Ajay Tamta, MP from Almorah, into the government.

With the defence sector being one of the key drivers of the all-round development reform initiated by the Modi government over the last decade, Singh will have to ensure next generation transformation, especially in policy matters, for further ease-of-doing business for the industry and foreign players. A reduction in the tendering process has been a long-standing demand of the industry. As of now, it takes at least seven to ten years to complete the acquisition of weapons systems, that the tri-services can ill-afford in a fast-changing technology-based warfare.

During Rajnath Singh’s regime, defence exports crossed ₹21,000 crore for the first time in April, recording 31 times growth in the last 10 years. Though significant progress has been made, India continues to be the world’s largest importer of arms from FY 2013-14, a report of Swedish think tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said. Imports went up by 4.7 per cent from 2014 to 2018, probably due to the large-scale ramping up of weaponry of the tri-services, held back during the previous dispensations.

Post-2020, the speed of modernisation of the armed forces also went up, following the Galwan face-off with China.

The Minister will have to push for timely implementation of the proposals of the committee constituted for the revamp of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), which is key to achieving true aatmanirbhartha in the military sector. The DRDO has formed an overseeing committee for review and implementation of the K. VijayRaghavan Committee’s recommendations by August 31.

Rolling out the process of actual theaterisation of the tri-services — Army, Navy and Air Force — is also a top priority. Besides that, the Army will see the installation of a new chief of staff, after General Manoj Pande’s one-month extended tenure comes to an end on June 30. Likewise, the Air Force, too, is due to get a new chief.

The NDA allies — JDU and Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas) — have expressed concern over the Agnipath scheme of temporary recruitment of constabulary in the forces, and sought a review of the policy. The Defence Minister will have to negotiate this key issue since Bihar was the hotbed of violent protests against the scheme. The Opposition INDIA alliance has vowed to scrap the scheme if they come to power at the Centre.

The Ministry also has to supervise key defence acquisition negotiations including 31 MBQ 9 drones; a team from the US was here last week to cap pricing of the UAVs. The deal for manufacture of GE 414 fighter engines in India between General Electric and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is also half-way through, which would require the attention of the new government, besides others.

Border talks with China for de-escalation of forces in Ladakh is also a work in progress.

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