Rajnath Singh erred by transforming what is traditionally a simple domestic military ceremony in the IAF into a political and religious one with all the trappings of a single religion abroad. Singh does not represent a single-service faith. He is the Defence Minister of a multi-faith military which is secular, apolitical and professional

by Maj Gen Ashok Mehta (Retd)

The images of India’s third most powerful leader — Defence Minister Rajnath Singh — in a flying suit with Rayban glasses after flying in the Rafale and in dhoti-kurta performing Shastra Puja before the flight — are two contrasting visuals of India’s state of defence equipment: from the legacy Russian MiG variants still flying to the fourth generation French Rafale fighter in the pipeline. 

It is also a reflection of Singh’s conviction in religion, superstition and personal faith which he displayed on the 87th Air Force Day and Dasehra while performing the traditional Shastra Puja in France on receipt of the first Rafale aircraft from his French counterpart. The deification of the Rafale was very elaborate. The Ambassador to France was asked to arrange for a Pandit. Singh cracked a coconut, placed flowers, tied mouli, applied the Om Tilak, all behind the cockpit while tying chillies and lemons to the wheels of the aircraft — the ritual watched by a bemused French audience. In this Puja, Singh was assisted by an Indian priest and Air Commodore-rank military air attache to France. 

As a soldier, I have witnessed and performed the Shastra Puja in my battalion for six decades on Vijayadashami, a ritual which is strictly in the domain of three persons: the Commanding Officer, the unit priest and the senior most non-officer rank officer, the Subedar Major. All weapons are symbolically worshipped before they are returned to the Quarter Guard. One has never known an outsider perform this ceremony even if he is the Defence Minister of India. 

The Rafale belongs to the IAF, which has never performed a religious ceremony abroad while receiving a new imported aircraft. At an election rally in Haryana, Singh had announced that he wrote Om on the Rafale, ‘as per our tradition’. After Bofors, Rafale has proven to be politically volatile, especially the procedure followed in its acquisition on which the Supreme Court has reserved its judgement, even as the ruling party showcased it electorally before its operationalisation. Applying the Tilak on an aircraft is not an IAF tradition.

Singh’s actions and his self-defence have attracted criticism from the opposition, many calling it theatrics and Puja politics. NCP chief and former Defence Minister Sharad Pawar mocked Singh for tying chillies and lemons to ward off evil as truck drivers do. Singh’s colleague, Finance Minister and former Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, whose main contribution to defence was the defence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the purchase of Rafale, both inside and outside Parliament, said: “Those who had faith had the right to conduct rituals because he is no ordinary citizen but Defence Minister of India.” She compared his Shastra Puja with Indian diplomats/politicians launching ships abroad by cracking a coconut (used to be a bottle of champagne). But no Om was emblazoned on the ship. A letter to the editor of The Pioneer newspaper read: ‘Politicians wedded to Hindutva ideology are adept at converting every event into an opportunity.’ He suggested that chillies and lemons should have been attached to Chandrayaan-II. 

In the military, it is best not to mix religion with superstition or politics. 

Singh’s final statement was defiant: ‘I did what I thought was right and will continue to do so. This is our faith, that there is a super power, and I have believed it since childhood.' Never to be left out of India’s internal affairs, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, head of Pakistan’s ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations), chipped in: ‘Nothing wrong in Rafale Puja as it goes by the religion and that must be respected. It is not machine alone which matters, but competence, passion and resolve of the men behind the machine. Proud of Pakistan Air Force Shaheens.’

Singh erred by transforming what is traditionally and essentially a simple domestic military ceremony in the domain of the IAF into a political and religious one with all the trappings of a single religion, abroad. Singh does not represent a single-service faith. He is the Defence Minister of a multi-faith military which is secular, apolitical and professional. In all-India caste Army regiments, the prayer room contains multi-faith areas where soldiers of different denominations worship their God. Although Singh has asserted he will do what he did in France, again, for the sake of the Indian armed forces, he should take a leap of faith and avoid doing it.

As Defence Minister, Singh has done great things: sending powerful signals of India’s rise as a great power; raking up the issues of No-First Use after visiting Pokhran and retaking PoK in the aftermath of the parliamentary resolution of 1994; opening up Siachen to tourism and generally boosting the morale of the armed forces. At his election rally in Satara, Maharashtra, PM Modi had said his government had brought India’s armed forces on a par with those of other countries and provided the three services with modern weapons. 

Judging from the sparse funding for capital account of the defence budget in the last five years, Modi’s claim is an exaggeration. Singh’s real contribution to the military would be in getting at least Rs 50,000 crore annually for capital spending, over and above the existing liabilities during the remaining term of this government in order to catch up with China. Deterring Pakistan has largely been achieved. The government has shown recently how it can loosen its purse-strings. When there is a will, there is a way.