The tasks ahead
While making the expansion-cum-reshuffle of his Cabinet on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has once again made it evident that he is a 'master of masterstrokes'! Pooh-poohing all the speculation, he chose one of the soberest, dignified and focused women of his party as the new defence minister and one of the best performers of his cabinet as the rail minister. While Nirmala Sitharaman's appointment as defence minister is a recognition of her determination and skill displayed as the minister of State for commerce and industry, Piyush Goyal seems to be receiving the award for his brilliant performance as the minister of Power, Coal, New and Renewable Energy and Mines. In appointing both these ministers as the head of the important ministries PM Modi has given out clear, unwavering indication that economic growth is placed as the top most priority. While the defence sector in India has always crippled with insufficient financial resources and a non-existent domestic defence manufacturing base, very often creating hurdles in achieving India's economic and strategic goals; the Indian Railways has always lagged behind in catching up with the advancement in the worldwide innovation of railway technology. As the Doklam standoff had revealed the possibility of a two-front war, the new defence minister would have to lead from the front to prepare the country's armed forces in tackling the most challenging situations. Similarly, the new rail minister will have to combat the safety and security issues plaguing the Indian Railways through practice management and for that he will have to communicate safety expectations to the ground level employees at the lowest level of the hierarchy. Bringing in good deals with the advanced countries would be on the top of the priority list for both Sitharaman and Goyal. India had inked a defence deal with Russia in 2016 and till date, nothing tangible has been made of this connection, except the purchase and assembling of Kamov choppers. While India signed over 3 billion USD defence deals to kick-start defence cooperation with Israel, another defence deal between India and Japan for 12 search-and-rescue (SAR) aircraft valuing 1.3 billion USD is in the final stages. Since, all these three nations are vital strategic partners and allies of India, the timely execution of these deals would result in India building stronger bonds with these countries. Likewise, the railways would have to attract foreign players for the pilot projects of new technologies like condition-based monitoring system for rolling stock and the Track and Ultrasonic Broken Rail Detection System that has been plagued by under-investment for years; the state-run transporter is struggling with over saturated lines and obsolete signalling systems in the absence of an organised infrastructure development. The overhauling of manufacturing units must be the top priority for both of them. The new defence minister would have to review the ordinance factories, which were the only source of supply artillery and ammunition to the army. As the CAG reports had indicated India's low levels of war reserves, it is the exact time to push the ordinance factories to meet their production targets, while also collaborating with private players. Similarly, Goyal would have to give a go-ahead to setting up of two much-awaited modern loco plants at Madhepura and Marhaura in Bihar as the Railways had decided that only Linke Hofmann Busch coaches – manufactured at these railway coach factories – would replace all existing conventional coaches. On the modernisation front, while Sitharaman would have to take forward the Make in India programme to cut dependence on imported weapons and systems as the government is pushing to build fighter planes, submarines and helicopters in the country, Goyal needs to modernise and upgrade the infrastructure while also finding technology solutions like Centralised Traffic Control, Automatic Train Protection and Automatic Signalling that would provide low-cost solution for safety at higher speeds with continuous enhancement. As India has a legacy to practice the principles of self-reliance and self-sufficiency, it is apparent that while strategic warfare cannot be won without addressing the economics of defence, any means of transportation cannot run smoothly without addressing the issue of security. While the erstwhile-commerce-turned-defence minister appears to be the best person to yield positive returns on defence investments, the new Railway minister is expected to script a turnaround of India's cash- impecunious and wobbly Railways just as he did for the power ministry.