Let’s start by educating our MPs on defence matters
The chief of army staff, General Bikram Singh on the penultimate day before assuming charge told the official Sainik Samachar magazine that modernisation would be his top priority. The army is reportedly short of over Rupees 40,000 crore worth of critical equipment. The new chief has enough money in his kitty. The army has the lion’s share of capital budget in defence allocation for 2012-2013 which stands at a whopping Rupees 1,93,407,29 crore. This excludes Rupees 39,000 crore on defence pensions, as well as allocations for the Indian Coast Guard, canteen stores department, defence ministry secretariat, defence estates and a few others.
The question is can he do it? The way forward has been provided by a former COAS, General Deepak Kapoor. “He will have to work hard to restore functional relationship between defence ministry (bureaucracy) and the army,” General Kapoor has been quoted as saying. This exactly is the problem. While there is little gainsaying that General V.K. Singh’s tenure saw the army’s relationship with the parent ministry dip to a new low, why should this come in the way of the service’s modernisation? Because defence services have no representation in meetings where procurements meant for them are decided by the government.
In his book, ‘Kargil: From Surprise to Victory’, General V.P. Malik wrote that: ‘Whenever the Cabinet Committee on Security discusses issues of defence procurements, the chiefs of staff are not invited. I do not know how, why and when was this practice started.’ This practice was temporarily suspended during the 1999 Kargil war when bureaucrats were side-lined paving the way for direct interaction between the services and the political leadership. Considering that it is back to the old method, the answer for service’s critical procurements must be found elsewhere.
Probably, educating members of Parliament on defence matters could be a good beginning. If the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence can produce a 116-page (mostly sensible) report with a few days of interaction with defence ministry and services’ headquarters officials, a concerted work on MPs round the year may deliver goods.
For a better understand of this issue, I had a long interaction with former COAS, General Shankar Roychowdury, who was a MP after relinquishing office. He made three interesting points. Most MPs are not knowledgeable on defence issues, and thus the committee relies upon media reports to frame questions for the defence ministry and services’ headquarters. Consequently, wily bureaucrats deflect queries towards service’s representatives giving the impression that they have little to do with most matters. “When I was member of the Standing Committee, I used to call bureaucrats to answer procurement issues,” he told me. The third point made by the general was that the committee report is not binding on the defence ministry which tables the report in the Parliament. In short, ministry bureaucrats may or may not respond to committee’s question, and may or may not take the desired action.
Then, what good is a report whose questions may not be pertinent, the ministry bureaucrats may remain equivocal or mum on most queries, and few MPs may bother to read a report they do not understand. Ideally, the services should be part of the defence ministry, which they are not, or senior military officers should make presentations in CCS meetings for procurements, which they don’t. If MPs understood defence issues, maybe they could do more than help in service’s procurements, I reckoned. They could push the government on structural reforms, which to guard their turfs, the bureaucrats oppose tooth and nail.
Case in point is the recommendation of the Naresh Chandra task force which submitted its report recently to the government. Constituted to review the February 2002 Group of Ministers recommendation on national security and defence a decade after they were made following the Kargil war, the task force has reportedly emphasised on the need for a permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC). To recall, the 2001 defence management report under Arun Singh had categorically said that the ‘COSC has been unable to fulfil its mandate’ and had recommended the creation of the Chief of Defence Staff post. The then Vajpayee government created a half-way house in vice-CDS (re-named Chief of Integrated Staff to Chairman) without a CDS. The CISC reporting to the (already discredited) Chairman, COSC has been manipulated by ministry bureaucrats. It serves as the staff headquarters on procurements to the defence ministry without any say in decisions.
My enthusiasm for adopting the MPs route to bring about defence reforms was punctured by Air Commodore Jasjit Singh (retd). A Padma Bhushan and a veteran on defence issues, Jasjit Singh told me that he had tried to educate MPs on defence, but as this translates into nothing at the hustings, their interest in the subject remains a passing fancy. Defence matters are treated as a holy cow by most people, and the media also lacks commitment on this subject, he added. Probably, he is right.
But this pessimism has not deterred me. I recently got in touch with officials at the Standing Committee on Defence (15th Lok Sabha) secretariat with the request for a one-on-one meeting with the committee chairman, Satpal Maharaj, a Congress MP. Perhaps, there may be light at the end of the tunnel.