Manohar Parrikar’s first visit to Bengaluru as the defence minister was on January 17, 2015. He had just taken over the reins of the ministry of defence from Arun Jaitely barely two months ago.
Information about his visit was kept under the wraps. The Modi government had just sacked the then DRDO chief Dr Avinash Chander. A section of scientific fraternity was upset and the media was firing many questions at the government.
His hosts in Bengaluru – Aeronautical Development Agency and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd – were clearly instructed that there will be no media interaction, whatsoever. Parrikar’s 13-hour visit also included stops at BEL and BEML. It was his first review of various defence projects in the city.
I was waiting in the wing to meet India’s new Raksha Mantri (RM) and was sending out regular reminders to ‘sources’ in the MoD and to his aides. With the news of the likely landing of an Embraer with the minister onboard being confirmed by a friend, it was time to launch ‘Mission Manohar Parrikar.’
I had only a couple of hours to execute a near-impossible task to meet the country’s defence minister without any formal appointment. Calls to his aides went unanswered and messages showed as ‘not delivered.’ My guess was right as Parrikar & Co was on board the plane to Bengaluru.
As luck would have it, finally I got a call from Mayuresh Khanvte, the APS (Additional Private Secretary) to the defence minister, asking me to be present at HAL’s Bangalore Complex in 30 minutes. It was 6.30 pm by then.
I texted him saying I could be late by 15 minutes owing to the traffic. “OK. Come. RM is waiting,” a reply came.
As I throttled ahead to my destination, I had another problem on hand -- HAL’s security. I knew any delay at the gate would scuttle my interview opportunity with the RM. Then HAL chairman Dr R K Tyagi came to my rescue and I finished the security formalities at supersonic speed.
I shook hands with Parrikar and we sat down for a quick chat.
“Is Bengaluru still cold for you to wear a sweater,” he asked me, signalling for tea. His mobile rang while I was about to ask the first question and he handed it over to one of his aides.
Parrikar looked at his watch and it was around 7.40 pm. Wearing a brown half-sleeve shirt and the oval shaped, detachable magnetic Clic glasses hanging around his neck, the RM was ready to take on my queries.
On DRDO chief being removed, he said the idea of the government was to hand over the charge to someone who was young. From his body language, I felt probably he wasn’t very comfortable with my first question!
I asked him whether he got settled in MoD, considered to be a difficult assignment.
“You see, learning is a continuous job. My mission is to motivate the forces all the time. While they defend the nation fearlessly, it is my job to take care of their needs. I am like a service-provider to them, giving the back-end support. It is my duty that all the families of our armed forces are safe and happy. I am studying all their concerns. I have started looking into files sitting late nights to understand the gravity of the problems,” he said.
On Tejas, Parrikar said he was convinced that it was a fine aircraft. “We need to move on now. The key is delivery and HAL should ensure it. I have told them to have out-of-the-box ideas. The future of this project will depend on the mass production capabilities of HAL,” he had said.
The other questions revolved around India’s home-grown projects, procedural delays in MoD and modernisation. His answers were crisp.
When his aides gave a reminder about the flight timing, he looked at me and laughed.
“You have obviously more questions and I have to leave,” he said and got up. Now, we both were standing and I managed to fire one more question on MoD’s image often dented by controversies.
“You see, I don't need any branding. I don't need any publicity. I have been given a job and I will have to execute it. If my forces are happy, it will be the biggest branding I can get,” he had replied.
As I walked along with him to his car, he looked at me and said: “I know we had to rush through. I wish I had more time with you. We will meet again, next time,” he told me, slipping my visiting card into his pocket.
Interestingly, the next few meetings all happened at different cities and Parrikar’s memory really surprised me.
At the Missile Complex in Hyderabad on October 15, 2015, Parrikar was ready to share an interesting bit on flying. He talked about his concerns flying on choppers and how Dr Kalam’s advice helped him.
“I had a very peculiar problem. I always thought very differently how the helicopters flew. This was an issue for a long time as I felt the helicopter had very odd ways of flying. And, once I had an opportunity to fly with Dr Kalam. He changed my thoughts. He explained to me in details the working of helicopters and since then I felt very comfortable,” Parrikar said.
As destiny would have it, all our next meetings continued to be one without any planning. At DefExpo in Goa in 2016 and during Aero India 2017 in Bengaluru, I had memorable encounters with Parrikar.
During the foundation stone-laying ceremony of Abdul Kalalm Memorial in Rameswaram on July 27, 2016, I met him again.
Amid the chaos, I reached out to him and by then, he was aware of the #Justice4GuruKalam campaign for the memorial I was part of.
“Good to know about your other activities,” he told me as he hopped on to the car of his senior ministerial colleague Venkaiah Naidu.
Among the many defence ministers I have interacted over the years, Parrikar was different. He came to you as a simple package filled with care, understanding and most importantly someone who respected others.
There was logic in his approach. He chose to remain as a human being. He wasn’t a politician blinded by power. He wasn’t arrogant. He never ignored anyone.
When Kalam’s family members wanted to introduce me to him in Rameswaram, Parrikar was quick to remind them. “Yes. Yes. I know him. The roaming journalist,” he said.
No wonder they say, eating fish enhances your memory!
(The writer is an independent aerospace and defence journalist, who blogs at Tarmak007 and tweets @writetake.)