India's new Defence Minister is no 'yes' man

India's new Defence Minister is no 'yes' man

As Defence Minister, Mr Manohar Parrikar has use of a government jet, but he chose a budget airline when he returned to his home state of Goa after the Cabinet swearing-in in New Delhi.

Until his Cabinet appointment, Mr Parrikar, 58, was the chief minister of Goa, a western coastal state - a post he had held three times, the first in 2000.

Even while he was chief minister, he preferred to live in his own house instead of the larger premises provided by the government.

Mr Parrikar is rarely, if ever, seen in formal attire and has been spotted riding pillion on a scooter, standing in line at the airport and hailing a taxi.

Thus his decision to fly budget came as no surprise to people in Goa, long used to his simple lifestyle, which is totally at odds with that usually led by India's politicians.

Mr Parrikar is a widower whose wife died of cancer in 2000. He has two sons and became a first-time grandfather last month.

But behind the man with an affable exterior and simple lifestyle is an astute and hard-headed politician.

Mr Parrikar is credited with helping the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) become the ruling party in a state of 1.8 million people, where almost one in three is a Catholic.

Those who have watched him say he has strong political instincts and is extremely ambitious.

He was among the first prominent BJP leaders to back Mr Narendra Modi's prime ministerial aspirations, and it was in Goa under his watch in September last year that Mr Modi was named the election chief for the May general election at a BJP meeting, despite fierce opposition from sections within the party.

Even his staunchest critics have a grudging respect for Mr Parrikar.

"He is a very clever politician, also a very, very hard-working politician," said Mr Vijay Sardesai, a member of Goa's legislative assembly who is an independent.

"He has integrity. The BJP became what it is in Goa through his inclusive politics."

The Prime Minister can learn a few things from Mr Parrikar, Mr Sardesai added.

"Unlike Modi, who rules with the support of Hindus, he has endorsement from the minorities. He has seven Catholic MLAs (Members of Legislative Assembly). He got them elected. I think even Modi can learn a few things from him, especially with regard to inclusive politics."

Mr Parrikar comes from a humble middle-class background. His father was a shopkeeper.

After completing his schooling in Goa, he studied metallurgical engineering at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and returned to Goa after he graduated.

While he went into business, he was also an active member in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological backbone of the BJP. The RSS moved him to the BJP, where his career as a politician began.

Now that Mr Parrikar is in government, critics and supporters alike agree that he has left behind a huge political vacuum.

"He was running a one-man government in Goa. It is very difficult to fill his shoes," said Goa- based journalist Frederick Noronha.

While Mr Parrikar is a Modi loyalist, many know him to be a man who does not hesitate to speak his mind and do things as he sees fit.

In an interview last year, Mr Parrikar called the 2002 Hindu Muslim riots in Gujarat - which killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims - "a blot on the career" of Mr Modi, who was Gujarat chief minister at the time and accused of doing little to stem the riots.

Said Mr Noronha: "He (Parrikar) is not a 'yes' man. He has strong views and is not one to mince his words.

"Whether that helps or hinders his relationship (with Modi) is yet to be seen."

gnirmala@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Nov 17, 2014.
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