The leakage of the former Army Chief General V.K. Singh’s secret letter of 12 March 2012 to the Prime Minister, on large scale deficiencies in the Army, created an uproar in Parliament. While the issue of who leaked the letter and the motive behind the leak is under investigation by intelligence agencies, the bigger aspect that needs to be examined is how did we reach this level of hollowness, and what needs to be done to rectify the situation and avoid a recurrence in the future. In this context, among others, the Parliament of the country has a definite responsibility to discharge its duties in ensuring the readiness of the armed forces at all times.
But before going further, let it be clarified that it is the duty of a service chief to keep the government apprized of the readiness levels of his force and, consequently, the deficiencies existing from time to time. All chiefs have done it in the past and General Singh’s letter was in continuation of that practice. It is a different issue that it came in the public domain which has led to this introspection, something which should have been happening in normal course.
The Standing Committee of the Parliament on Defence is constituted immediately upon election of the new Parliament and has members from all major parties in the Parliament and is drawn from both houses. It is for this august body to oversee the functioning of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and make its recommendations to the Parliament. It is expected to suggest structural, systemic and conceptual changes besides monitoring defence expenditure, so as to improve the operational readiness of the armed forces. This presupposes possession of adequate knowledge and expertise by its members to perform this role. Unfortunately, more often than not, with a few exceptions our Parliamentarians since independence have had limited knowledge of defence matters. In the past, we have not even had a major debate in the Parliament on defence, thanks to it being considered a holy cow. It was indeed a refreshing change that a debate did take place in the recent session of the Parliament which ended on 22 May 2012.
Discussion on defence matters suffers from an inherent disadvantage. Defence is a relatively dry subject as compared to, say, development. While tangible benefits of development, for which a Member of Parliament (MP) speaks in Parliament, are visible to his electorate in the form of infrastructural improvement, welfare schemes, greater employment, poverty alleviation, etc., there are no such quantifiable results or individual tangible gains when defence is discussed. It only gets attention when national fervour is heightened in the wake of a crisis or calamity, as happened during Kargil war. Or, it gets attention when corruption is detected in defence deals! Moreover, since the knowledge level in case of development is much higher, it makes for more lively and interesting debate, especially because public understanding of development is also greater compared with defence matters.
To rectify the situation, it may be worthwhile starting a short national security and defence capsule for members of the Standing Committee on Defence, and other interested MPs, to begin with. This capsule could be conducted at the National Defence College immediately upon selection to the Standing Committee. Additionally, the Committee members should visit units and defence installations of the services at least once a quarter, individually or as a group, to familiarize themselves with ground realities. Only then can meaningful and practical solutions to defence-related issues be discussed and debated. It is not enough for them to call MoD officials and representatives from the three services to the parliamentary annexe for discussion before finalizing their recommendations to the Parliament. The Standing Committee is literally the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Parliament on defence matters and has a sacred role to perform. In the limited time available, it needs to concentrate on conceptual issues and systemic improvements rather than day-to-day activities and crises. Some of the major issues that could make a difference in operational efficiency and readiness of the services are discussed below.
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