Don't ask, don't tell…

The superficiality of defence-related questions that our lawmakers pose in Parliament to the government, and the defence ministry's dismissive and incomplete responses to those queries underline a worrying indifference to questions of national defence at the highest level. The military accounts for 16-18 per cent of central government spending — the single largest outgo. Setting aside national security for a moment, the economic argument alone should be enough to encourage sharper interrogation from our lawmakers, and greater endeavour by the government to reassure the country that the trillions spent on the military generate bang for the buck. Yet those who wade through Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha proceedings on defence would agree that our legislators reflect the same regrettable ignorance in parliament that their party spokespersons — from across the political spectrum — display in television debates on defence.

This indifference to defence and ignorance about its technicalities is reflected in other key institutions. Parliament's Standing Committee on Defence fails to raise searching questions, while the defence ministry responds with indifference to points that the Committee makes. In numerous cases, the ministry simply ignores queries. Compare this with Washington, where the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House of Representatives' Committee on Armed Services exercise power that rivals that of the Pentagon. These Committees confirm all nominees for high office, including the military chief and theatre commanders, and are presented with budget requests as a pre-requisite for sanction. Meanwhile, our Standing Committee feels overawed to summon a service chief or the defence minister, or to pose questions that cry out for apex-level attention.

This broad institutional ignorance also shines through the work of other committees, such as the Committee on Estimates, which last week fluttered the dovecotes by criticising the "lowest defence spending since 1962." Given that our defence allocation, at Rs 4.04 trillion, exceeds what the budget sets aside for education, or health care; and the defence capital allocation already consumes 33 per cent of the union capital budget, it should be mandatory for all institutional criticism of "low defence spending" to be accompanied by recommendations about what spending head should be pared down in order to give more to defence. Spending more on defence is an easy solution, but often an impossible one. These committees should focus on ways to optimise expenditure and outcomes. 

Illustration by Ajay Mohanty
Then there is the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), which blithely evaluates technical defence matters through the lens of a pure accountant. Last week the CAG concluded that the Boeing P-8I Poseidon maritime reconnaissance aircraft was improperly procured by the Indian Navy, which had received a lower bid for the A319 MMA built by EADS CASA. This indicates an almost sublime indifference to matters military, since every defence expert acknowledges the former as the world's most advanced aircraft of its type, which equips the US Navy amongst others, while the latter sells only as an airliner. But the CAG report is out and the Indian Navy is cringing at the prospect of political opportunism scuppering the arrival of four more Poseidons it has contracted. True, the military must be rigorously audited, but with a smidgeon of military-technical awareness.


A responsible government that is interested in elevating parliamentary oversight would put far greater attention into its responses to members' questions, hoping perhaps that subsequent questions might be informed and encouraged by well-crafted answers. But the government's inclination - and this was as true for the previous United Progressive Alliance government as it is for the current National Democratic Alliance one — is to present turgid responses that sidestep the question or camouflage the answer under piles of verbiage.

The defence ministry's pro forma answer on "Make in India" kicks off with: "Modernisation of defence sector is a continuous process and is undertaken based on threat perception, operational challenges, technological changes and available resources…" It then meanders around the new Defence Procurement Procedure (in fact, as slow and ineffective today as ever), the Strategic Partner policy (still not promulgated in full after four years), the simplified "Make" procedure (not a single contract awarded), the liberalised foreign direct investment policy (a total of $180,000 come in), new offset guidelines (still awaited) and a Technology Development Fund (still to get off the ground). The astonishing thing is not that the defence ministry can present such a response, but that the questioner blandly accepts it without any follow up.

To cite another example, the government responded to a question on August 8 on the liberalised licensing norms: "The licensing policy has been streamlined, reducing the number of items requiring Industrial License (sic). A total of 379 licenses have been issued to 230 Indian companies for manufacture of defence items." Very well, but these numbers mean nothing without divulging the value of production this has resulted in, and details of whether this is manufacture of indigenously developed equipment or merely "build to print" manufacture of foreign components. How much of this is for export, how much for indigenous use? The answer, like several before it on this subject, is silent on this. And, going by past record, there will be no follow up.

This begs the question: Why do legislators ask defence-related questions at all? There are striking cases of little-known members from rural constituencies posing questions relating to specific arms procurements they would normally be indifferent to. Without risking charges of libel or contempt, it needs to be remembered that, in December 2005, a television sting operation filmed 11 MPs — including six from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), three from the Bahujan Samaj Party and one each from the Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal — accepting cash payments for asking questions in parliament. When they were expelled from the House, the BJP leader of the oppposition, LK Advani, protested with a walk-out, calling the punishment "disproportionate" and characterising their offence as merely "stupidity". Paying MPs to ask questions is a low-cost method of throwing sand in the gears of an ongoing defence procurement. 


Given this all-round depressing situation, it should shock nobody that the government's responses to questions on defence are often factually incorrect, with figures varying by the billions. In one answer on January 3, the MoD stated that capital expenditure for 2016-17 was Rs 682.52 billion. Barely a month later, on February 7, it was stated as Rs 691.50 billion — a difference of almost Rs 9 billion. In those same answers, the figures for the previous two years varied by Rs 2.79 billion and Rs 1.06  billion respectively.

Successive governments have operated on the assumption that the less the public and the Opposition know about defence, the less ammunition there is to attack the government with. But that is short-sighted. Defence is an aspect of governance where the public and the opposition are best kept on side. Keeping them fully informed is a pre-requisite for doing so.

Twitter: @ajaishukla