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Red faces in House after defence rap

New Delhi, April 23: It was a day of embarrassment for the government, which claims national security to be its top priority, in the Lok Sabha today.

The reason was the latest report of the parliamentary standing committee on defence, headed by the BJP’s Madan Lal Khurana. The “unanimous” report placed before Parliament yesterday has severely criticised the defence ministry on several counts.

But if the report is discussed again, it might be the Opposition’s turn to get embarrassed. Not because of its contents, but the minister who will discuss it.

The Khurana committee has revealed that the defence ministry — the three services included — has been underutilising the annual budgetary allocations on revenue and capital accounts, has not spent the special income-tax surcharge collected last year in the name of national security and is yet to acquire much-needed weapons and weapon systems for modernising the armed forces.

The Opposition was up in arms today, demanding an answer from Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and asserting that national security is not safe in the hands of the NDA government.

When the House assembled for question hour, the Opposition was up in arms. Congress chief whip Priya Ranjan Das Munshi sprang to his feet, urging Speaker Manohar Joshi to suspend question hour to discuss the report.

As the Opposition pressed for a response from Vajpayee, the Prime Minister asked the Speaker if this should be allowed in question hour. Joshi agreed with Vajpayee that question hour should continue and the matter be taken up in zero hour.

When zero hour came, Das Munshi and his deputy leader Shivraj Patil raised the issue again and demanded a reply from the Prime Minister. Vajpayee did respond, but only to state that the government took reports of all parliamentary standing committees seriously, regardless of whether they were headed by Khurana or anyone else. He then suggested that the issue could be discussed in the House separately and that the government would not shy away from such a discussion.

But a debate on another day might prove to be embarrassing for the Opposition as well. Defence minister George Fernandes, who has been boycotted by the Opposition since the Tehelka expose two years ago, is the “appropriate” minister to speak for the government on the issue.

The Opposition soon realised that a demand for a discussion on the report would be an invitation to Fernandes, who is in China at present, to speak and would mean the end of its boycott of the minister.

By evening, Congress spokesman Jaipal Reddy was demanding that only the Prime Minister should respond to any debate on the report, not Fernandes.

CPM’s Somnath Chatterjee had joked in the House that Fernandes would be SARS “quarantined” as soon as he returned from China, so how could he be available for a discussion.

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