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Indian military won’t reform by itself. But Parliament’s diluted role is a bigger concern

In developed nations, the defence committee is the main driver for national security reforms. But the Modi govt in India has completely diluted Parliament's role.

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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.

Also read: Neo-nationalism defends Army’s rogue actions, but clean human rights record is key

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.

Also read: Modi govt’s hasty passage of farm Bills shows there is no sanctity to law-making in India

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.

Also read: Bureaucracy intact in Indian military. DMA only brings ill-advised orders for armed forces

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.

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  1. But the PRESENT PARLIAMENT would have done nothing with each member having his/her own agenda and axes to grind as PARLIAMENT is mostly a shouting platform nowadays. The armed forces would have been waiting indefinitely while these members settle their individual scores. Krish

  2. Very mildly stated by Gen Panag. Indeed, the lack of policy making expertise among our parliamentarians is shocking. Good points on the failed CDS initiative. Will take decades to undo the damage.

  3. India’s Politicians (Parliament) are less competent in military matters than even the Brass Hats. But, Just as self serving.

  4. Our MPs are engaged in “Mainly Politics”. That’s MP for us. It is distressing that attendance of MPs in such an important parliamentary committee is so poor. Little wonder that the Executive has occupied the space.

  5. Both defence and the intelligence agencies, for that matter the home and external affairs ministries as well, should have greater parliamentary oversight. The executive is on a roll. Of course, to exercise meaningful oversight, the caliber of parliamentarians should improve greatly a# well. Take the otherwise beloved family of Dharmendra, Hema Malini and Sunny Deol. Too many lampposts are getting swept into Parliament by tsunamis.

  6. The committee has been entrusted with the four functions, looking at the scope and the reach of these functions, how long would it take for a typical MP to study understand and opine on the issues ? The dilution of the role of the Parliament has been brought about by the quality of the MPs we send, to blame it on the Modi government is unfair to say the least. Why would a person with O vested interest would such a thing ? MP remaining absent for 11 meetings insisting on discussion on agenda of his preference during 12th meeting shows the commitment and seriousness level.
    Unfortunately it does not end there, when it get made into an issue by someone who knows the defense better than all PMs put to gather.
    Please do not drag Modi into everything, he is not stealing our money whatever else he might be doing or not doing.

  7. Thank God, things are back to normal. Keep criticising these hindutvawadi people sir. You dont need to write even a single positive article about these sanghi people. Dont let anyone pressurize you.

  8. It is not good for India that the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence has only one member with defence background and less than 50% of members attend. It shows the executive gives very less importance to security, whatever bravado they may declare in public. Politicians of all parties are to blame for this state of affairs.

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