After burying its head in the sand for an inordinately long period, the Indian government finally woke up to the fact that the country’s defense procurement mechanism was getting lost in an immeasurable abyss. There cannot be a better measurement of the murky wheeling and dealing that characterizes India’s hardware acquisition procedure for the defense forces than what is happening over the 556-million-euro AgustaWestland helicopter deal, with a former air force chief being dragged into the controversy for accepting illegal gratification while he was in office.
Never before in India’s military history was a top leadership implicated in a corruption scandal even though the former army Gen. V.K. Singh claimed to have parried an attempt of involving him in an illegal defense contract. While the government of India after some deliberate dawdling finally pushed forward with the investigation into the chopper scam, and irrespective of probe’s final outcome, the fact remains that the entire methodology of India’s armament procurement is shrouded in obscurity.
It is an open secret that defense deals are subjected to manipulations by the vested interests sitting pretty within and outside the establishment. The stories of such under-hand dealings keep popping up, highlighting inadequacies of India’s anti-corruption measures to keep the middlemen at bay. Those who are pretending to be holier than thou need to be reminded that the entire spectrum of the Indian political class has a role in the abetment of such questionable contracts, circumventing the strict guidelines already in place to neutralize corrupt practices.
Experts chillingly declare that the startling Agusta scandal facts tumbling out of the cupboard are just a tip of the iceberg, conveniently forgetting that the water froze into ice when the Bharatiya Janata Party was holding office, and has started melting now only. Indeed, many boats are going to be rocked if the harrowing truths are revealed someday.
Meanwhile, the nasty nature of domestic politics, which often banks upon speculative allegations to create a perpetual cycle of ever-increasing prejudice in public mind against political opponents for the sake of electoral mileage, is taking a toll on the country’s defense preparedness.
World over, political discourse has traditionally influenced the fate of big budget defense procurement especially in pre-election season. As Italy goes to general elections, with a two-day voting that began yesterday and will close today, their internal investigation focus on one of the nation’s most controversial party Lega Nord’s involvement in the Agusta AW-101 chopper scam given the outfit’s growing support base in northern Italy and tie-up with Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Liberta. AgustaWestland’s parent firm Finmeccanica has allegedly diverted portion of the illegal arms payment to buy Lega’s support for prospective government formation.
Similarly, the opposition led by the BJP in India is sparing no effort to milk the scandal for publicity at all costs. It is, therefore, nothing unusual that the same shouting brigade, which discovered a making of the second Bofors howitzer scam that tarnished late Rajiv Gandhi’s image during his premiership, were reaping the fruits of power when the mandatory altitude restriction rules of 6,000 meters were tweaked in favor of the Anglo-Italian helicopter company on the prodding of a top British diplomat stationed in New Delhi.
Interestingly, the very air chief who allegedly received kickbacks to push the deal was rebuked by the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Office because he set an unrealistic benchmark for overseas vendors — read Agusta Westland — without consulting officials of the PMO and Special Protection Group entrusted with VIP security.
At the end of the day a realization must creep in somewhere that this practice of lobbying has existed for ages and is considered to be one of the oldest international professions. Call it public relations or anything else; the state has been the strongest of all lobbyists with an overlapping of the interests of public officials and political parties they belong to. Hence, instances of influential functionaries of ruling political outfits being approached by interest groups to curry favor is not too uncommon in today’s world.
To release their products in India through the complex and corrupt politico-bureaucratic corridors in New Delhi, authorized defense agents are required to appease — by cash and kind — the links in the lengthy product selection process and the booty reaches multiple coffers via different channels. This gray area has effectively been institutionalized in India over the years where officials in charge of procurement are required as a part of their job to liaise with middlemen prior to field trial.
Unfortunately, these people end up facing the wrath when there is a hullabaloo over any deal and the real beneficiaries escape attention. Keeping in view that it is neither economically nor strategically expedient for a heavily Soviet-equipped Indian military to put all eggs in one basket in a unipolar world; any move that put the existing bulk contracts under a question mark would lead to a serious imbalance in India’s ongoing military modernization program.
While corruption charges need to be investigated impartially, it is time, India as a nation, accepted the concept of lobbying and legalized it in the statute book. The current morass arises out of a completely non-existent regulatory framework that specifies the guidelines or seeks unambiguous lobbying disclosure.
Last but not the least, a country of India’s magnitude and status — spending up to 15 percent of its national expenditure on defense — should concentrate on capacity building for reversing the trend of importing 70 percent of required military hardware. The country certainly is not bereft of a realistic potential to turn into a global defense manufacturing hub with creation of millions of direct and indirect job opportunities. But then, there is no one to provide sanity when sober voices are getting drowned out by hysteria on all fronts.