National Interest: Our bigger defence scandal
Further, if bribes are traced to any Indians, they must get the swiftest punishment in fast-track courts and, in any case, the money must be recovered from the suppliers by invoking the integrity pact. You can't see what defence they would have when their own government has charged them with bribery. But this is where the issue begins to get complicated.
Should you then immediately cancel the deal and start searching for VVIP helicopters yet again? That may take another 6-9 years (as AgustaWestland did in spite of the "bribes"). So complicated is our system. Meanwhile, our prime minister, president and other such seriously threatened species will continue to fly decades-old
Mi-17s that are so unprotected that one of them was brought down by the odd Naxalite bullet in Chhattisgarh just the other day. Yet you may have no choice. There is far too much muck flying. This government does not have the nerve to nuance its response by separating the machine from the bribe, or the classic baby and the bathwater.
The problem is, this helicopter deal is not the only one to suffer such a fate under the UPA. In fact, while important for VVIP protection, it is not a deal of any great military urgency. Think, on the other hand, of the more serious programmes that have been put in cold storage at the mere whiff of scandal. The army's desperate quest for modern artillery has stalled as almost all the key suppliers, from Germany to Israel to Singapore, have been blacklisted. Some key missile and radar programmes are stalled as some of the Israeli giants have been blacklisted. If the Guinness Book had an entry on the number of armament suppliers blacklisted, it will be UPA 2 forever.
WITH a complex, elaborate, multi-layered and idiot-proofed mechanism, and with the shoot-from-the-hip use of the CBI and blacklisting, the UPA has developed a defence purchase system that can probably be described as wrapped in latex. But what has it achieved? This approach breeds indecision, fear, suspicion and a you-cover-my-backside-and-I-will-cover-yours mindset. The best it can do is create a situation where, the moment stuff hits the fan, each participant can say, but of course, I didn't do it. In the process, nobody decides, anticipatory bans are imposed and inquiries ordered, which lead nowhere. And of course, in spite of all this, you cannot prevent a scandal of the dimensions of Finmeccanica.
The state of India's defence acquisitions today is a disaster much greater than any single bribery scandal, particularly the one that has just been revealed. The important point is not that the UPA has gifted itself a grade one defence purchase scam even under the watch of a minister whose personal integrity has never been questioned. The UPA will pay for this politically. The more important issue is that they have the shame of this scandal after having banned half the world (Rheinmetall, the German conglomerate we banned, now owns 109 armament firms worldwide). This super-cautious government has achieved other firsts in India's history: notably, and the most dubious, the first defence procurement scandal allegedly involving one of Government of India's own companies, in fact a mini-ratna, BEML, for Tatra trucks. And even while that investigation meanders, ask the strategic forces command and DRDO how it has brought nuclear missile units and artillery regiments to a standstill.
India has the fourth largest armed forces in the world, but its politico-military leadership still has the mindset of a small-town retail consumer. One who goes out every evening with a jhola, searching for the best bargains. That is why all you hear about is one individual deal or the other, each progressing in isolation. In a global arms bazaar that is fast cartelising now with M&As, and where nothing comes with an MRP (Maximum Retail Price) sticker and which has no price discovery mechanism, there is always slack available for crooks and fixers. You can never fully eliminate them, but you can probably make their lives tougher. Here is how.
ARMAMENT systems have a long operational life. The first MiG-21s came in 1964, and some will remain with us for another decade, if not longer. The Jaguars, bought in 1978, are being upgraded for their third innings. T-72 tanks, BMP infantry fighting vehicles have crossed 30 years in the Indian army's service, and stay on. Indian armed forces' orders are large. They can sustain large production units. That we should have tried to build our domestic production capabilities is a no-brainer. But a combination of intellectual and political laziness, military impatience and entrenched vested interests has kept practically all defence production within the public sector. Our PSUs and ordnance factories have done some joint production, but never really developed the expertise to do anything else on their own. What is HAL capable of, for example, after being a nearly five-decade national monopoly with captive consumers, besides some more "joint" production? The establishment's suspicions of the Indian private sector are intriguing. Security leaks? If you can trust private companies around the world with your armament details, why not fellow Indians? Profiteeering? You can't even mention that argument, post Tatra-BEML.
Every decade is shadowed by a new defence scandal in India. This will also take its course. But the fourth largest armed forces in the world, and an aspiring big power, can't get there without a military industrial complex of its own. There is a third-world, banana republic kind of ring to every defence scandal in India: 12 helicopters, a bunch of guns, a factory to make fuses for artillery, a few hundred trucks and so on. This can only change if we think big and invest in the future. And for that, India has to embrace its own private sector and get its PSUs to compete with them, rather than just become adjuncts to foreign principals.
I can claim that in my years as a reporter I was rarely fooled on a story. And never like I was on one to do with armaments. In 1985, I was writing a cover story for India Today on Rajiv Gandhi's remarkable military modernisation search. I was shown around the research and production facilities where the MBT Arjun was being developed and built: the best tank in the world, in its class, I was told. I have a photographic recollection of V.S. Arunachalam, then head of the DRDO, lovingly patting the front of the tank and saying, "Shekhar, this is the best armour you can find for love or money." I bought the Arjun story wide-eyed. Twenty-eight years later, the tank is still in some stage of development, and we have bought two generations of T-72s and T-90s meanwhile.
So here is a thought. What if the government had just floated the GSQRs (General Staff Qualitative Requirements) of the MBT and sought bids from whoever was willing, including, say, Tata, Mahindra, Leyland, L&T, all the companies that represent this great Indian strength in automobiles and engineering. They would have collaborated with the DRDO, found their own technology partners and dealt with the foreign firms and agents, the Haschkes and Quattrocchis. You would then choose from competitive products and prices. Chances are, if you had done that early enough, by now one of them would have sold the army 3,000 MBTs and exported a few thousand as well, while creating jobs, taxes and capabilities here. You can do the same with planes, guns, ships, and submarines. Of course, this will not finish all imports. Nor will it ensure no scandals. But it will make for a much healthier, safer and cleaner system. It will also make India look more like a nation deserving of armed forces of this size. And a more formidable resident in this tough neighbourhood.
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