The meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, held on 16 December 2020, was mired in controversy over Congress leader Rahul Gandhi walking out with two other party colleagues after saying he was not allowed to speak on the “serious national security” situation in eastern Ladakh despite giving notice in advance.
In his letter to Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla the following day, Gandhi wrote: “You are aware that we are currently facing a serious national security challenge on our borders and that China has forcibly occupied our territory and martyred 20 of our soldiers. There are many critical matters to discuss at a time like this. I was therefore extremely disturbed to find that the Chief of Defence Staff and the top brass of the Army, Navy and Air Force, who have important matters to deal with, had been asked by the chairman to spend an entire afternoon explaining the colours and different types of uniforms and insignia worn by different ranks in our forces.”
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a section of the Indian media lampooned Rahul Gandhi, with some critics terming his walkout “grandstanding”, perhaps to score brownie points. Gandhi was also reminded of how he was absent from all the earlier 11 meetings of the committee held since its formation as part of the 17th Lok Sabha. A cursory look at the minutes of the 11 meetings, as noted in the committee’s Sixth Report on the defence ministry’s demands for grants for 2020-21, also indicates that barely 50 per cent of the members attend these meetings.
One of the two items on the meeting’s agenda — ‘An Introduction to the Rank Structure of the Defence Forces including their Uniforms, Stars and Badges’ — and the ad hominem-laced response to an important national security issue raised by a member, whatever his track record may be with respect to attendance, reveal the current state of one of the most important committees of the Indian parliament.
The panel’s charter
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence (PSCOD) oversees the functioning of the Ministry of Defence to ensure accountability of the executive to the legislature with respect to national security. The committee has been entrusted with the following functions:
- Consider the ministry’s demands for grants, prepare reports and then present them before
- Examine Bills pertaining to the ministry that have been referred to the committee by the Lok Sabha speaker or the Rajya Sabha chairman, and prepare reports thereon.
- Consider the ministry’s annual report and prepare reports thereon.
- Consider the national basic long-term policy documents presented before the Houses, if referred to the committee by the speaker or the chairman, and then prepare.
With this vast charter, the PSCOD can examine any issue related to national security. Apart from briefings by various departments of the defence ministry, the committee can call upon domain experts to advise it.
PSCOD must become a vehicle for reform
In most developed nations, the defence committee of the parliament/senate is the main driver for national security reforms. The United States Senate Armed Services Committee is considered one of the most powerful Senate committees. Using its broad mandate, which is similar to that of the PSCOD, it has acted as the primary vehicle for most extensive and revolutionary reforms, including the National Security Act 1947 and the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defence Act 1986. Over the years, several committee members served in the US military. Senator John McCain, a war hero and the 2008 presidential candidate, was chairman of the committee (2015 -2018) and left his indelible mark as a watchdog over the Pentagon.
In India, the executive has completely diluted the role of Parliament with respect to national security. One of the most important changes in higher defence structures — the creation of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) — was done through an executive order without any parliamentary debate or oversight. There is little or no debate on national security both due to procedures and lack of knowledge/interest on the part of parliamentarians. The discussion on the situation in eastern Ladakh, where our territory and national honour are at stake, was restricted to a statement by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, which was not debated.
The members of the PSCOD are randomly nominated by the speaker and most have little or no domain knowledge. More often than not, it is merely an adjunct of the system. On a rare occasion when Major General B.C. Khanduri was the chairman of the PSCOD — from 1 September 2014 to 31 August 2018 — its reports were reformative, highlighting the shrinking budget and the poor state of modernisation of the armed forces. These reports, in all probability, led to his removal from the PSCOD.
The current committee has only one member — Lt Gen. D. P. Vats — who has a military background as a doctor in the armed forces. Ironically, his explanation for the agenda item — ‘An Introduction to the Rank Structure of the Defence Forces including their Uniforms, Stars and Badges’ — was bizarre. He said that the purpose was to educate the members of the PSCOD about the rank structure and awards of the armed forces. The same could have been done through a handout rather than a presentation by a Major General and certainly did not warrant the presence of CDS Bipin Rawat, Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar and Vice Chief of Army Staff Lt Gen Satinder Kumar Saini.
The way forward
Militaries by nature are status quoist and rarely reform themselves. Parliament is the watchdog of any country’s national security, a duty that India’s parliament has failed to carry out. National security is too serious a matter to be left only to the executive. If necessary, the constitutional/parliamentary procedures must be amended for the elected representatives to play a greater role.
The charter and the functioning of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence must be reviewed and the best Members of Parliament must be part of it. It is a matter of national interest that this committee becomes the principal vehicle for India’s security reforms and ensures the accountability of the executive.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.