Depoliticising defence procurement

National security cannot remain a main act in India’s political circus

India’s politicians have a vested interest in keeping scams and scandals unresolved. Long after people forget the facts of the case, the soundbites live on to be exploited for tactical political gains. For a long time, the Bofors scandal came in very handy to beat the Congress party with; with the ‘Tehelka’ scandal, the Congress party could return the favour.

The recent attempts by the Congress party to keep the controversy over the Vajpayee government’s defence procurements alive threaten to worsen the politicisation of procurement. India’s byzantine procurement rules, coupled with once-bitten-twice-shy attitude of the procurement bureaucracy risk leaving the Armed Forces without the gear that they need urgently. Due process and accountability is no doubt required to ensure that the defence rupee is put to the best use, but as the Indian Express puts it, “it is the height of absurdity to suppose that vital strategic purchases can be governed by the same tendering rules that apply to purchases of furniture.”

A sober assessment of the recent controversies over defence procurement would suggest that India needs to rejig its defence procurement process, especially the bureaucratic and political parts of it. A joint-parliamentary committee, drawing its members from the Treasury benches, the Opposition, the two houses of parliament and chaired by the defence minister should be tasked with the approval of all defence purchases. While this will by no means be a substitute for the lack of maturity among parliamentarians, an institutional mechanism that helps distribute the responsibility of decision making can help mitigate the worst effects of the present situation.

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