Manohar Parrikar will remain an inspiration for life. The biggest lesson I draw from his life is to remain humble, no matter what heights one reaches
Our first conversation began with a misunderstanding. In January 2015, I was in Baroda when an ‘unknown’ number flashed on my mobile. Thinking it was a friend from abroad whose number normally doesn’t show up, I greeted him exuberantly expecting a similar response. Instead, the voice on the other end said, ‘This is Manohar.’ Puzzled, I rather curtly replied: ‘Who Manohar?’ ‘Parrikar,’ the caller added. The penny dropped.
Writer Nitin Gokhle with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar
It was India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. He had personally called. From his own mobile. No PA, no exchange, nobody holding the line. He had simply dialled directly. ‘I want to meet you,’ he said in a matter of fact tone after I had apologised for being slightly rude in my initial reaction. ‘Don’t say sorry. We have never spoken before and my number doesn’t flash. How would you know who is calling,’ Parrikar pointed out and immediately put me at ease. I told him I was away and would return to Delhi in the next couple of days. ‘Done. Let’s have lunch on Sunday. I am staying in Kota House. Please come there around 12.30,’ Parrikar told me. My next question was, ‘who should I be in touch with?’ ‘No one. You call me. Please note my number.’ And just like that, my short but memorable association with Manohar Parrikar began.
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.
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar interacting with the troops at border
Hours before going to Kota House (the Naval facility where he was staying since a Lutyen zone bungalow was yet to be allotted to him), 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 Mumbai bureau chief of NDTV had specifically asked me to meet Parrikar in November 2014 when he took over at Defence Minister, mentioning that he was very approachable. However, I had no real reason to meet the new Defence Minister, 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.
For the First time India got Technically Qualified Defence Minister
Lt. Gen. (Retd) DB Shekatkar
For the first time in the history of India, we got a Defence Minister who was highly qualified technically. In the 21st century, the warfare revolves around technology. And a person from IIT, Bombay, was the most suitable person for this post.
Secondly, he was equally compatible in the finance sector. We all know that defence and finance goes together. Thirdly, it was his achievement that he got One Rank One Pension (OROP) for the armed forces because this was in the manifesto of BJP in 2014. He and Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi worked together to make it a reality, despite all the hurdles raised by the bureaucracy in Delhi.
Fourthly, he was a great visionary as far as the international mission is concerned. In today's world, it is the tenor of diplomacy which leads to conflict, clash or warfare. And he understood that. Therefore, he was the person who said, “We will try and resolve all the conflicts as far as possible, but if we are forced, we will hit and hit forcefully. Then none can block our path”. However, he did not get much time. As Defence Minister he formed Shekatkar Committee involving experts for defence review. He used to insist that unless you are willful, active and proactive and has strong army you cannot win the war in 21st century. He ensured that the recommendations of that committee are accepted and now they are under implementation.
Finally, he got the support of the United States of America and the European leadership. I don't think any Defence Minister in the history of India could do that. There was YB Chavan, who did something for the armed forces after the defeat of 1960. And the armed forces displayed the best result in the 1965 war against Pakistan. It was for the first time that we got technically-oriented and highly qualified Defence Minister, who was very humble, very modest, very bright and very honest.
(Lt Gen Shekatkar was Chairman of the Committee constituted to recommend measures to enhance combat capability and rebalance defence expenditure of the armed forces in 2016)
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 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.
- 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
- By the middle of 2015, he had understood what could work in the murky world of defence, and what could not. However, he was never comfortable in Delhi’s culture of sycophancy. His bungalow was open to everyone but fixers and influencers
- The most astonishing aspect of my two-hour journey from Goa to Delhi was that he never referred to a single piece of paper. Everything was on his fingertips. His phenomenal memory and eye for detail were clearly evident in the interaction
‘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.
A Meaningful Life
He was a Sangh swayamsevak and remained a swayamsevak throughout his life. He was very conscious of his personal and public conduct. He followed it throughout his life
The simplicity that Manohar Parrikar ji followed in his life was unparalleled. Even while working as Chief Minister, he lived in his own house and used his personal vehicle for personal work. Unlike the common practice seen in public life, he used his ordinary car only and never desired to have expensive or hi-fi vehicle. After completing IIT in Mumbai, he worked for some time before starting a business which too was quite successful. It naturally improved his financial stature. Despite that he lived a highly simple life. He always did what his intellect and wisdom permitted. Despite being Chief Minister and enjoying privileges, he always travelled in the Economy Class during air travels. When somebody asked he used to say that he would not be a Chief Minister throughout his life and if he changed his habits it would disturb him once he did not have all such facilities.
Prior to his becoming Chief Minister of Goa, there was a new Chief Minister in the state after every six-seven months. And within that short period, everyone amassed sufficient wealth to enjoy lavish life. But even after becoming Chief Minister four times, Parrikarji did not change his old car and used the car ordinary.
I remember an incident. After his becoming Chief Minister, the Sangh took up a Sampark Abhiyan in Goa. Since he was also a swayamevak, he was also assigned some names to contact. They included Governor, Chief Secretary, etc. During the meeting with the Governor, some other swayamsevks were also to accompany him. At the stipulated time, he reached while driving his car as his driver was on leave that day. He said what I am doing today is doing as a swayamsevak and not as a Chief Minister. Finally, some Karyakartas joined him in his car and he drove it to the Raj Bhavan. When we reached there, the security guard, as usual, came to inquire as to whom we want to meet. As the guard normally asked the driver only for such details, the guard asked Parrikarji sitting on the driver seat as to whom they want to meet. As Parrikar ji downed the window glass, the guard was astonished to see the Chief Minister driving the car. He could not even imagine the CM would himself reach Raj Bhavan while driving his personal car. He was very conscious of his personal and public conduct. He followed it throughout his life. Even in dressing, he remained an ordinary person.
His wife passed away six months after his becoming Chief Minister. But there was clear instruction to the family members not to reach the Chief Minister’s residence for any work. Even while he was Leader of Opposition in the Assembly, his wife walked to the market for shopping. He used to say that it should reflect from our personal conduct that my family members do not draw any undue benefit from his official position. When his wife passed away, he himself dropped and picked up his younger son to school by his personal car. After coming back home, he went to the CM office by the official car. He never used his official car for personal work and ensured that his children also do not develop the habit to use such facilities.
He was a Sangh swayamsevak and remained a swayamsevak throughout his life. His memory power was extraordinarily sharp. Those who worked with him recall that he used to recall after several years that he wrote something on the particular corner of a paper by red or blue pen. We have worked together, and there are many instances which show that he indeed set an example of simple and meaningful life for others.
(The writer is organising secretary of Vijnan Bharati and was a Sangh Pracharak in Goa).
As months went by, he started calling me home at 10 Akbar Road. Sometime early morning at 7, many times after 10 pm, after he had finished with his official work. 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.
By the middle of 2015, he had understood what could work in the murky world of defence, and what could not. However, he was never comfortable in Delhi’s culture of sycophancy. His bungalow was open to everyone but fixers and influencers. So I had to be doubly careful since word had spread about my unrestricted access to India’s Defence Minister. I must have blocked at least 14-15 numbers in the period that Parrikar was in Delhi because people of dubious credentials wanted to use my closeness to him. I would inevitably tell him about who I had blocked. He would smile and say, ‘good!’
In November 2015, I launched BharatShakti.in. I wanted to begin with a detailed interview with India’s Defence Minister. But somehow, he couldn’t find time to sit for an hour or more. When I started breathing down his neck as the deadline neared, he said come to Goa. ‘We will fly back together. That way we will get two uninterrupted hours.’ So one fine day, we boarded his official Embraer from Dabolim airport. For the next two hours, I recorded a freewheeling chat with him. The result: his most detailed interview ever (https://bharatshakti.in/exclusive-interview-with-rm/). In fact, it was so detailed that most of what he said translated into policy one by one as months went by. The most astonishing aspect of that two-hour plane journey from Goa to Delhi was the fact that he never referred to a single piece of paper. Everything was on his fingertips. His phenomenal memory and eye for detail were clearly evident during that interaction.
Parrikar was also a voracious reader. One day—I think after he returned from his maiden trip to the US—he handed to me a book and said, ‘read this if you haven’t.’ It was titled ‘Victory on the Potomac’ written by a Pentagon insider detailing the battles that were won and lost in the American political arena before the Goldwater-Nicholos Act was promulgated. ‘Give me your opinion on what could we borrow from here for India,’ he told me, signalling the intent for creating jointness and integration of the three services. On another day, he fished out Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War and revealed, ‘it is useful for me to follow some of the tips in this book for my own journey in politics. You should also read it.’ Both those books are still with me. In fact, the day he vacated his bungalow, he carted all his books to Goa Sadan and three weeks later asked me to pick and choose what I wanted to take home. I brought home about 60-65 books. Now they will remind me of him, each time I pick up any one of them to read or refer to.
I was always curious about his journey from IIT Bombay to politics. He narrated a very revealing anecdote about how it all began but suffice it to say once he decided to take the plunge, he was a natural. Parrikar knew how to extract the best out of a diverse set of people. He was loved, respected and followed blindly but Goans for over two decades. He had his faults of course. For one, he hated to decentralise or delegate. Calling him control freak would be an exaggeration but because he was a perfectionist, Parrikar preferred to do most of the work himself. Parrikar carried the zeal that had made him such an adored leader in his own state to Delhi but the workload in the MoD was enormous. So he would invariably wake up at 4 am and not sleep until 11 pm. The punishing routine and the fact that he worked all seven days a week (five days in Delhi and two days in Goa), took its toll. He was practically running the Ministry of Defence and the state of Goa simultaneously and very perfectly.
When in Delhi, he would miss the informal Goan way of life. He had to behave formally as Defence Minister most of the time. But when Parrikar felt he had to unwind, he would suddenly call and ask if I was in Delhi and free. If I said yes, he would ask me to request my wife to cook simple, homemade fish curry and rice. For the next 90 minutes or so, India’s Defence Minister used to regale us with anecdotes from his personal life in his typical witty style, forgetting all the burden that he carried on his shoulders. We in the family too developed such a close bond with him that none of us felt he was an outsider. For us, it became an accepted fact that Parrikar would drop in at home without much notice. Now, looking back, we have suddenly realised that we don’t even have a single photo with him in our house although I have many snaps with him in public functions.
As I write this, my eyes well up and thousands of memories come flooding back. I am an emotional jumble at the moment, but even when I look back after some months, I am sure I will feel the same way about Parrikar—Bhai to everyone in Goa, but like an elder brother to me in the two years that I got to know him so closely in Delhi. To say we will miss him is to state the obvious but for me, the bigger loss is for India as a nation. You went too soon Manohar Parrikar. Travel well, my friend. You will remain an inspiration for life. The biggest lesson I draw from your life is to remain humble, no matter what heights you reach.
(The writer is a well-known Defence journalist and is the founder of two web portals ‘www.bharatshakti.in and