‘Selecting a new DRDO chief has become like walking on a landmine’.
The post of the chief of Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) has been vacant for nearly three months now, courtesy the apparent pressure tactics being employed by various quarters—both from inside the government and outside it. A few posts had fallen vacant in the last week of May after the incumbent DRDO chief Selvin Christopher retired following a three-year long tenure which included a year-long extension. The post of SA to RM (Scientific Advisor to Raksha Mantri), which was held by G. Satheesh Reddy for three years, including a year-long extension till 4 June 2018, is vacant too. DRDO chairman is also the Secretary of Defence, Research and Development.
Since the retirement of Christopher, Sanjay Mitra, a 1982 batch IAS of West Bengal cadre, is the Defence Secretary, and he is also holding the additional charge of the post of Secretary, Department of Defence Research & Development and Chairman, DRDO for a period of three months, beginning 29 May.
Official sources said that this was for the first time that the DRDO was staying headless for this long. They attributed this situation to various stakeholders who are involved in the functioning of the organisation. The DRDO has an annual budget of Rs 20,000 crore; it spends the same on the upkeep of over 50 laboratories across India.
“The post of the DRDO chief is a very coveted one and apart from merit, other factors like political interference, regional interference, import lobby and foreign vendors play a crucial role in the whole exercise. The government is not giving a very good message by displaying indecisiveness. Ideally, the next chief should have been identified and notified even before the term of the incumbent ended,” a former top official who worked with the organisation for more than three decades, said.
According to officials, selecting a new DRDO chief had become like walking on a landmine in recent times. “So many names are floating in the media; many of them are being planted by their adversaries, many by the claimants themselves. There is not a single name whose candidature will not generate controversy unlike at the time of appointment of Abdul Kalam or V.K. Aatre or V.S. Arunachalam, all of whom were well-known scientists. Earlier, the DRDO was headed by scientists who were really reputed, but now the situation has changed,” a scientist, posted with one of the DRDO laboratories, said.
Sources said that the government had come close to appointing a new chief when Selvin Christopher’s term was about to end, but at the very last moment, there was a “negative intelligence report” on the one who had been shortlisted and the whole process was abandoned.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi had repeatedly expressed his concerns and apprehensions about the working of the DRDO. However, these concerns cannot be taken care of if the DRDO chief is appointed not because of merit, but due to his proximity to a particular minister or to a region,” the official said. In a not-so-covert hint that the organisation could be externally influenced, V.K. Aatre, who succeeded Kalam as DRDO chief, had once said that there were three non-state actors that influenced the working of DRDO: foreign vendors, mass media and the import lobby.
“If one traces back the history of the DRDO, one would come across names like Dr V.S. Arunachalam who had absolute freedom to walk into the office of successive PMs. He was close to Indira Gandhi and was able to secure a lot of money and autonomy for the organisation. Before him, we had people like Dr Daulat Singh Kothari, Professor S. Bhagavantam, Dr B.D. Nagchaudhuri, Prof M.G.K. Menon and Dr Raja Ramanna, who were scientists of international repute and were known for their work across the globe. Now it is not the same,” a senior official of the organisation said.
According to officials, the 2015 bifurcation of the post of the DRDO Chairman, Secretary of Defence, R&D and the SA to RM, which were earlier headed by the same individual, had led to two competing power centers within the organisation.
“This should not have been done as this has affected the value of the chair of the DRDO chief. Do you expect the SA to RM to give importance to the DRDO chief? Now every proposal that is brought by the DRDO is vetted by the SA to RM. There was a lot of friction between Selvin and Reddy because both of them thought they were more senior to the other,” an official of the organisation explained.
Former officials recalled how someone like Kalam, decorated with the Bharat Ratna, Padma Vibhushan and Padma Bhushan, led the DRDO in the past. “He was the brain behind Pokhran-II; he was someone who stood shoulder to shoulder with the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a stalwart Prime Minister. We are missing a man like him. He needed no recommendation or political approach to become the chief of DRDO. People like Kalam had assumed a huge stature much before they had joined the DRDO,” an officer recalled.