by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 12th Apr 12
The confusion swirling around the issue of India’s defence readiness has deepened with the chairperson of Parliament’s standing committee on defence, Satpal Maharaj, issuing a press release on Wednesday that sought to deny earlier media reports on the summoning of the three service chiefs to brief the committee on India’s military preparedness.
The press release from the Congress party MP from Garhwal said the service chiefs had not been officially invited before the committee. According to the release, “it has been reported by the media that the three service chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force have been called by the standing committee on defence at their sitting to be held on April 20. It is clarified to the media that no official correspondence for calling the chiefs on the said date had so far been issued.”
Some members of the committee have stated they were not consulted before this statement was issued. Congress and non-Congress members alike expressed concern that this had been done under pressure from the Congress party.
It is learnt several committee members advised the chairperson to invite each of the service chiefs separately, rather than all three together.
“I will raise the issue with Satpal Maharaj tomorrow,” says a senior member of the committee.
On Monday, the Army’s number two, Lieutenant General S K Singh, had briefed the committee about serious shortages of ammunition. The next day, defence minister A K Antony referred to his testimony as “rumours”, declaring, “the country is fully prepared (and) is in much more strong position as compared to the past (sic).”
Antony’s statement also contradicts what the army chief, General V K Singh, told the prime minister in a letter last month that was leaked to the press. Singh wrote that the air defence network was “97 per cent obsolete” and that the army’s tanks were “devoid of critical ammunition to defeat enemy tanks”.
Satpal Maharaj could not be reached for comments.
The standing committee had begun playing a visible role in tackling the contradictions that swirl, unresolved, around the question of India’s defence readiness. Naresh Gujral (Rajya Sabha – Shiromani Akali Dal), who played a key role in the decision to ask for a briefing by the service chiefs, says, “There is clearly a problem between the MoD and the military; the last few months have made that clear. I believe the committee must play a larger role in resolving these issues, including the crucial question of whether the military is ready for war.”
Gujral complains that, “the MoD has all along denied us information, on the grounds that it is classified. The ministry wants to confine us to issues like married accommodation projects, land records, military uniforms and minor issues like that.”
Satpal Maharaj’s decision could threaten the committee’s new assertiveness. Manvendra Singh, a former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member who was on the committee while in the previous Lok Sabha, says: “The effectiveness of the committee depends largely on the chairperson’s political clout and his knowledge of defence affairs. In the 14th Lok Sabha (2004-2009), Balasaheb Vikhe Patil (Lok Sabha – Congress) provided clout to the committee. But the current chairperson, Satpal Maharaj, has been a late starter. He is only now getting his act together. And, if he has bowed down to the party, the committee will be ineffective.”
The standing committee on Defence has 30 members. The 20 Lok Sabha members include Satpal Maharaj, Feroze Varun Gandhi, Asaduddin Owaisi and Manish Tewari. The 10 Rajya Sabha members include Mukut Mithi and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.