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Far From a Mini-Parliament, Standing Committee on Defence Is Now an Arena for Political Slugfest

The committee chairman’s refusal to allow discussion on Agnipath was as inconsequential as the protest walk-out by the three opposition members.
Parliament House. Photo: Reuters

The recent refusal by the chairman of the Standing Committee on Defence (SCoD) to deviate from the pre-determined agenda and allow a discussion on the ill-conceived Agnipath military recruitment scheme was reminiscent of the 1964 bestseller Games People Play by the Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne, albeit with a difference.

While Berne postulated that human behaviour is influenced by three intertwined instincts in the human ego – Parent, Adult, and Child – and the negative aspects were often triggered by intermixing of these instincts in the subconscious mind, what dominated the July 23 Committee meeting was the ‘Child-instinct’, to the total exclusion of the other two instincts.

The SCOD Chairman’s refusal to allow discussion on Agnipath was as inconsequential as the protest walk-out by the three opposition members. An impromptu discussion without prior preparation by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) officials and the members of the committee couldn’t have yielded any fruitful result.

Introduced in June this year, the Agnipath scheme aims to recruit soldiers, or Agniveers, for a four-year Tour of Duty (ToD) into the armed forces. While one-fourth of them will be re-inducted as regular soldiers after completing their initial engagement, the remaining 75% will need to seek alternative employment.

The parliamentary committee’s meeting that day was not scheduled to discuss the Agnipath scheme. Instead, it was to consider and adopt the draft report on the action taken by the government on an earlier report of the same committee on the functioning of Ordnance Factories, the Defence Research and Development Organisation, the Directorate General of Quality Assurance, and the National Cadet Corps.

Strictly speaking, the chairman was in order in suggesting to the protesting SCoD members that the Agnipath matter be raised on the Parliament’s floor in keeping with Rule 331E of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha. Technically, the government notification on Agnipath did not fit into the mandate for the SCoD, which extends to consideration of the budget, annual reports, and the long-term policy documents and Bills pertaining to the ministry referred to the committee by the Lok Sabha speaker

The chairman was also right on another count. Considering that defence minister Rajnath Singh and the three service chiefs had already made a presentation on Agnipath to the parliamentary Consultative Committee of the MoD, another discussion on the same topic in SCoD would have been hardly in order. After all, Rule 331M of the Procedure Rules clearly declares that the standing committees need not ‘generally consider the matters which are considered by the other Parliamentary Committees’.

Defence minister Rajnath Singh and service chiefs General Manoj Pande (Army), Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari and Admiral R. Hari Kumar (Navy) announce the Agnipath scheme, in New Delhi, June 14, 2022. Photo: PTI

Be that as it may, it is indeed surprising that the chairman should have disallowed discussion on Agnipath on the tenuous ground that, having been decided at the beginning of the year, the meeting’s agenda could not be altered, however serious an issue might be. On the contrary, permitting it wouldn’t have been unprecedented. There have been instances when the SCoD agenda was altered to discuss matters of urgency. For example. This occurred in 2012, when there was ‘unusual movement’ of troops from some cantonments in north India towards Raisina Hill in a supposed show of force by the Indian Army during the tenure of the force’s chief General V.K. Singh.

Similarly, an unscheduled discussion on the Agnipath scheme by SCoD members would have been equally germane, considering the widespread street protests that engulfed northern and eastern India following its announcement. The angry outburst, not only from military aspirants but also a sizeable section of military veterans who dominate the discourse on India’s defence and security policy, was also on public display.

To be fair, it’s not as if the SCoD is always guided exclusively by the ‘child’ instinct; more often than not this instinct is mixed with the indulgent ‘parent’ instinct. The committee’s observations and recommendations in its poorly edited reports are testimony to the fatuous effect produced by the combination of these two instincts in most instances.

In its indulgent, parental role, the Committee has lately been naively appreciating nearly all of the MoD’s activities in addition to making inane recommendations. This new-found indulgence is a 180-degree turnaround from the time when such reports were replete with harsh admonitions for the MoD’s civilian bureaucracy. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the perfunctory and token analysis of complex issues and the inanity of recommendations to deal with them.

Repeatedly, the SCoD makes undecipherable observations and recommendations, with little or no relevance to matters under consideration significantly attenuating its intended watchdog status.

This was at display in its March 2022 report in which it lauded the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) for sharing technology with private sector manufacturers and the latter for their participation ‘in the national Defence arena’. The SCoD, for its part, wrapped up this approbation with a typically parental, but obvious, advice that ‘due precaution needs to be taken to ensure that the technologies and products of DRDO are protected, utilised and ensured for national defence only and are not transferred into adversaries hands’.

In yet another report, the committee advised the MoD to ‘strengthen the R&D base of the country and increase coordination between the public and private sector within the country, so that the indigenous defence sector is encouraged to develop and manufacture technologies/systems/ accessories which are intended to be made available in the country through the FDI route’, leaving it to the hapless civil servants to figure out what more is to be done to strengthen the R&D base.

In a third report, appreciating ‘the journey of the Army towards self-reliance’, the committee expressed the ‘desire’ that ‘taking a cue from the extant global conflict scenario, the Ministry should take requisite steps to make the Armed Forces optimally self-reliant and it should be given utmost priority’. Isn’t that what the MoD claims it has been doing for the past several years?

In the same report, while lauding the Indian Navy for sharing ‘its weapon and sensor systems requirements with private Indian Industries’, the committee ‘earnestly recommend(ed) that utmost care shall be exercised while sharing Navy’s defence capabilities and scientific roadmap so that adversaries do not use the same in any manner to the detriment of national maritime interests’, belittling the Indian Navy’s intelligence.

Formally set up in April 1993, the SCoD – like other departmentally related committees – was to provide legislative oversight. Being a virtual ‘mini-parliament’, the expectation was that it will be able to dive deep into the problem areas and come up with practical and specific solutions that had were backed by a broad cross-party consensus. Instead, it seems to be fast becoming an arena for political slugfests.

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