Defence experts and politicians who spoke to The Wire expressed their discomfort with the way the heavy defence equipment exhibition was handled, especially its location.
Defence experts and politicians have criticised heavy defence equipment being brought into parliament premises for a three-day exhibition by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), saying it was an unwise decision and a reflection of the BJP’s idea of pseudo-nationalism.
The exhibition was inaugurated by Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan on Wednesday.
The sight of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles, the ‘Arjun’ main battle tank, the Airborne Early Warning and Control System and other equipment indigenously produced by the DRDO has rattled many attending the ongoing monsoon session of parliament.
Congress leader Shantaram Naik even raised the matter in the Rajya Sabha. Deputy chairman P.J. Kurien assured the house that he would examine the matter.
According to the DRDO, the aim of the exhibition was to provide the members of parliament with a “firsthand account of the mammoth amount of work” undertaken by the research organisation. However, the manner of in which this was done has unnerved many.
Even several journalists covering parliament tweeted pictures and indicated a sense of unease with the idea of having such heavy military equipment in parliament, a centre of democracy. Some even drew parallels with the movement of troops when General V.K. Singh was the army chief.
Former journalist turned defence analyst Ajai Shukla said it was inappropriate to display the equipment within parliament premises. “I do believe that it would have been better had the equipment been parked at Delhi Cantonment or some other such place. But I dismiss the idea of the equipment giving any indication of a coup or something similar. To say so is really going over the top. It clearly shows that somebody is out to just make a story.”
Shukla added that during Republic Day preparations, defence equipment comes barely 300 metres of where it was parked now. Any measures that are taken to improve the awareness of our parliamentarians about defence preparedness, which is dismal, is only to be approved of, he said. But there are ways and ways of doing it, and this was not the best way.
DRDO projects are run over decades, they have nothing to do with regime changes or elections. The products now coming into being have been in the making for 15-20 years. The criticism of the DRDO stems from not understanding the difficulties of R&D in defence, Shukla added. DRDO has done fine work, he continued. Like in all developments, there have been failures as well as successes. But all things considered, it has had a laudable record.
“Failures in defence research are normal. Even the F-35 fighter system which is one of the latest platforms took decades to build,” said Shukla, asserting that the DRDO is now headed in the right direction, as it seeking to focus on select works while leaving many of the smaller things for the private sector to develop. “This is now being done. The private sector was not allowed into defence upto 2001, when it was allowed in. Till now the government has struggled to create enabling policies. But it all seems to be coming together now.”
The question on which product will be developed by whom remains to be answered, but the process is already underway.
An inappropriate display
Congress spokesperson Ajoy Kumar said the manner in which the defence equipment was pulled out and brought into parliament, which symbolises democracy, is a reflection of the BJP’s ideas of pseudo-nationalism. “Not only is the whole thing definitely misconceived, it also gives an insight into the way BJP thinks – its idea of exhibitionism and publicity. Parliament is not a defence exhibition square. It is ridiculous of them to think that the MPs could not have travelled to some place nearby to see the event.”
Kumar also asked whether it is not important to show the people of India the DRDO equipment. “Bringing the equipment inside parliament is so jarring. It is like the Americans getting their cruise missiles to Capitol Hill. In the US, people would have revolted against the idea. This kind of thing happens in dictatorships. Is it a sign of things to come?”
As for the DRDO, he said, two things are of concern. One is the cost and second is the time taken for the development of systems. “I would hold my horses on the private sector and PSU issue, I think the DRDO should be allowed to work independently. But now they need to keep pace with technological changes and we need to go to the drawing board to see that India remain technologically competent.”
Former defence minister A.K. Antony of the Congress refused to comment on the issue, saying, “ I do not want to bring DRDO into a controversy. It would not be right for me to speak about it.”
Defence expert C. Uday Bhaskar of the Centre for Policy Studies described the exhibition held inside parliament premises as “an incongruous initiative”. The need of the hour was not exhibitionism but an objective review of the organisation, he added. “Indian politicians have always looked at defence politically. The overall national security is not the priority of our politicians. What happened in 1962, 1971 and Kargil prove it. They only look at short term gains. This is also one of them,” he said.
“If this government really wants to do something for DRDO on the 70th anniversary of Indian independence, it should form a blue ribbon committee comprising of people from outside DRDO, with people taken from different walks of life, to make an objective review of the organisation. If it does that, it will be a yeoman service to the organisation. Such a committee should not only set a few benchmarks for DRDO but also look at the nature of relations it has with the user. For long, the user-DRDO relationship has been uneasy,” Bhaskar said.
Here, the former naval officer referred particularly to the “DRDO’s overpromise to the Indian navy on the Barak missiles”. “The navy wanted to import the Barak missiles from Israel, but DRDO stopped it saying it will deliver. Finally, it couldn’t and had to do joint production with Israel. The point is, for some years, the navy’s frontline ships had to go without missile defence because of DRDO’s overpromise,” said Bhaskar.
In May this year, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence had also called on the DRDO to reorient itself with a technology road map, saying even 58 years after its establishment the organisation did not have a clear cut road map. It had called upon the DRDO to focus its energies on developing certain key technologies and suggested that low-end technologies be assigned to the private sector.