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Exclusive |‘Balakot an intel-based pre-emptive strike’: Nirmala Sitharaman

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has worked to accelerate and streamline the defence acquisition process and also build local manufacturing capabilities, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman said.

india Updated: Apr 12, 2019 09:45 IST
R Sukumar and Shishir Gupta
R Sukumar and Shishir Gupta
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Defence Minister and BJP leader Nirmala Sitharaman speaks to media during a press conference, at BJP Headquarters, in New Delhi, India
Defence Minister and BJP leader Nirmala Sitharaman speaks to media during a press conference, at BJP Headquarters, in New Delhi, India(Mohd Zakir/HT FILE PHOTO)
         

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has worked to accelerate and streamline the defence acquisition process and also build local manufacturing capabilities, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman said. In an interview with Hindustan Times, Sitharaman added that Indian forces on the border with Pakistan remain in a state of high alert and described Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi recent remarks on an imminent attack by India as an attempt to gain international sympathy. The interview took place on April 9, a day before the Supreme Court decided it would take into account information based on leaked official documents while deciding on the merits of review petitions against its December verdict on the Rafale jet fighter deal.

Edited excerpts:

Q. The Pakistan foreign minister recently made a statement that India would attack his country between the 16th and 20th of April. What’s your response to his comment?

A. Pakistan is unable to digest that in 2016 and in 2019, India, like it has always done, behaved like a true responsible power. We did not violate any international law. We waited 10-12 days after Pulwama. Pakistan often claims that it too is a victim of terror. If indeed they are a victim, why don’t they take action against those perpetrating terror, whether it is on my soil or theirs? Pulwama was claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammed. In Balakot, it was their school which was training future suicide bombers – I do not want to use the word fidayeen; that glorifies them; in their terminology it connotes a holy suicide bomber. I don’t believe in it. I think religions do not propagate violence. If Jaish claimed Pulwama, and is present in Balakot, wouldn’t they (Pakistan) act against them?

Q. They did not. So we did a very clear intel-based pre-emptive strike. We hit the target and came back. No civilians were killed.

A. It is clear they were not able to digest this. Now, they want to keep the fear psychosis up. They have blocked their air corridor. They are claiming this now. So that they can get some global sympathy.

Q. The debate on the downing of the Pakistani F-16 continues. What, according to you, is the real story?

A. That we shot an F-16, to me, has been shown with evidence. We have the data that shows the electronic signatures we recorded, the flight paths, the visual sighting of the pilots who ejected, and their trajectory.

Pictures, not ours, but emanating from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir of villagers posting pilots being hit, sighting of parachutes of a certain colour; villagers mistaking them for being Indian and so on.

Even better is the claim by Pakistan’s own authorities saying they have three pilots. One is this man (Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman) who was returned. The second is in hospital (they said). They didn’t speak more of the third.

Today, the question which remains unanswered is that one has come back to us, but what happened to the other two (claimed)? Isn’t it the duty of the Pakistanis to name and claim them? If they were not Pakistani, but Indian, name them and put out their pictures like they usually do. If they are not Indians, name the pilots, call them Shaheed (martyrs) for Pakistan.

So, the electronic signatures; the AMRAAM (advanced medium-range air-to-air missile) which is used only in the F-16, and a bit of which has fallen in India, which we have clearly shown….Then, after the article in Foreign Policy (claiming a count by the US showed no Pakistani F-16s had been shot down), the Pentagon said we were not a party to any head count of F16s.

Also read| ‘Sea change in Pakistan’s attitude towards India after Balakot air strike’, says PM Modi

Q. What is the current situation on the border?

A. We are on an alert. Pakistan has not opened up its air space (completely) yet. There have been several false alarms – a fleet of aircraft coming and then going back (at the Line of Control), almost as if they are testing us.

Q. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) manifesto issued earlier this week spoke of how the acquisition process for defence purchases would be accelerated. Can you tell what you have done so far, and what more needs to be done?

A. Between 2014 and 2019, the first two years didn’t see big purchases as Parrikarji (the late Manohar Parrikar, former defence minister) tried to understand where we stood. After all, nothing much had been done in the previous 10 years. He also appointed a few committees to understand how best operational efficiencies (in acquisitions) could be achieved. So that we are not buying things we don’t need , but at the same time, not missing buying those which are crucial. That helped in many ways after that.

Then Mr Arun Jaitley takes over as the minister. He starts moving on the teeth-to-tail ratio. Where you wanted to make sure you were not loaded with manpower, which is flab, but make sure where ideal age group personnel will have to be posted, trained, and equipped. That was mapped out.

Manpower deployment has become far more efficient. The [Lt. Gen (retd) DB] Shekatkar Committee report also has helped optimally utilise manpower – you don’t need army men running dairy farms and producing milk when co-operative societies can do that, and more efficiently. Military farms have been closed.

By the time I took over, the prioritization list of all pending purchases was ready. The pending list of equipment which should have been bought between 2004 and 2014 was there, but that didn’t mean we immediately bought all of it. Some were generations old already. We made the three forces go back and reprioritise . In some cases they said: “Dump that and go for an advanced model”. In others, they said: “Dump that altogether”.

I also said the Defence Acquisition Committee (DAC) should not meet only once in six months. I said I wanted DAC meetings twice a month. Since December 2017 – I took over in September – these meetings have happened and the purchases have been going absolutely …

What did I buy ? Small things, medium-size things and big things. If I tell you the small things, you will be surprised at the level of neglect of the armed forces. Bullet-proof jackets. In 2018, January or February, I gave the order. The supplies have come.

There was a big debate about 10 (I). Do we have enough equipment and ammunition if we were to face 10 intense days of war? No. We had guns without bullets. We didn’t have bombs, but we had tanks. We did not have enough avionic platforms on aircraft. These are recurring revenue purchases. So we devolved the powers. We delegated the powers to the vice chief. The vice chiefs of all three forces were given the powers to purchase for the 10 (I) category. We gave them the powers for emergency purchases also.

We also went ahead with capital purchases, which includes S-400 (missile system), which also includes Rafale. All these happened now. This government has proved that every need of the armed forces will be met and money has never been an issue.

Q. Admiral Bimal Verma has withdrawn his case seeking an explanation on why he was superseded for the post of Navy Chief. What are your views?

A. I don’t want to comment and prejudice the case. The court has told him that if he has exhausted all other ways of addressing the situation, he is welcome to go back to the Armed Forces Tribunal.

Q. The Rafale case has shown how easy it is to get documents from the ministry of defence. How are you going to address this?

A. See the issue of documents… what you call leaks. Information is stolen, irrespective of what is taken out. The files are with us, but there are versions, in part or in whole, are outside, it is still stealing information from the ministry. All of us have to be very clear on how we are going to contain it.

Also read|Congress steps up Rafale attack, wants resignations of ministers

Q. You have been spending a lot of time in the south. What are the BJP’s prospects in a region where, barring Karnataka, it hasn’t traditionally done well?

A. I think in some states in the south we have managed to strike alliances which, as things stand, look set to perform well. It may not be a sweep. But we will do well.

Today the environment in the South is no longer such that only a regional party can dominate. People are able to make a distinction between a national election and a local (state) election.

Q. Overall at the national level, how do you see the general election panning out?

A. I am very confident . This is not just BJP talk. PM Modi will be the PM again. And the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will form the government.

First Published: Apr 12, 2019 07:22 IST

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