I was puzzled and to be honest, also flattered that India’s defence minister wanted to meet me. I was intrigued because at that point in time, I was at a loose end having left NDTV in December 2014. I was not an important Editor or an influential journalist, yet he wanted to meet me. ‘What could he possibly want from me,’ I kept thinking over the next two days since Parrikar had not mentioned any agenda or subject for our meeting.
Hours before going to Kota House (the Naval facility where he was staying since a Lutyen zone bungalow was yet to be allotted to Parrikar), I banged out a one-page suggestion sheet in bullet points, highlighting what I thought were key issues in the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
At Kota House, I was ushered in straight into his suite. A smiling Parrikar, dressed as usual in his trademark open bush shirt and trousers, instantly put me at ease. I had heard many good things about his simplicity, his open approach. In fact, my friend Tejas Mehta, who was then the Mumbai bureau chief of NDTV had specifically asked me to meet Parrikar in November 2014 when he took over as Defence Minister, mentioning that he was very approachable. However, I had no real reason to meet the new defence minster since I was quitting full-time journalism around the same time. All this came back to my mind in a flash as we sat down.
After a moment of awkward silence on my part, I tentatively offered him the one-page sheet I had typed out. After spending two-three minutes reading it, Parrikar said, ‘good suggestions. And I am already working on some of them. But tell me, why does the MoD function on a principle of mistrust?’ Taken aback at the rather direct remark, I asked asked him to elaborate. ‘In these two-three months that I have been here, the most striking aspect I noticed is the all-pervasive atmosphere of suspicion. Everyone is looking over his or her own shoulders. There is very little coordination; the overwhelming tendency is to first say no to everything,’ a visibly agitated Parrikar explained.
I was astonished at how quickly a newcomer like him (no previous experience at the Centre) had gauged the work culture in South Block. ‘It has been like this for decades,’ I concurred. What can be done to improve the system,’ was Parrikar’s next question. ‘Well, there are no ready made solutions,’ I added.
‘There has to be a solution! I think the key is in getting everyone to sit down and evolve a fresh approach. I will call you again to discuss something that I have in mind,’ he said ‘but let’s not keep the fish waiting, gesturing towards the dining table. That’s where I first got a glimpse of his legendary love for fish. As we finished lunch, another point I noted was the ease with which he interacted with his personal staff. Upendra Joshi and Mayuresh Khanvate were among the two most trusted of his personal staff. They also ate with us, sitting on the same dining table. Later I knew why. When he trusted a person, he trusted him or her fully. No half measures.
As weeks went by, we met more frequently—always at his initiative—since I had insisted that I will meet him only when he wanted. Gradually, his calls started coming daily. He was hungry for new information, fresh insights. I provided whatever I could with my limited knowledge.
One day, Parrikar said he wanted to revise the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP). Give me some names of experts who can revise, rewrite and simplify the procedures, he told me. So I suggested half a dozen names. He chose four of them for the committee that eventually wrote the DPP 2016. It had many revolutionary ideas and Parrikar’s stamp was very clearly visible. He overcame stiff opposition from within to introduce a new category for procurement in the MoD called IDDM--Indigenously designed, developed and manufactured--products giving them top priority in acquisition. I dare say that the improved transparency in the MoD and the willingness of top officials to meet and explore collaborations is the lasting legacy Parrikar has left behind in the South Block.
As months went by, he started calling me home at 10 Akbar Road. Sometime early morning at 7, many a times after 10 pm, after he had finished with his official work. At night, he would inevitably share a beer (Bira had become his favourite) and ruminate, bounce off ideas and sometimes express his frustration about the obstacles he faced in the system. So much so that even when I went off to Honolulu for the 40-day Advanced Security Cooperation Course at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in September-October 2015, he would occasionally call from his staff’s Whatsapp number just to chat.