Probe, donít scrap

Investigations into the allegations of corruption in the AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter deal must unearth the money trails and lead to punishment of the guilty. But the government's initiation of cancellation proceedings on the deal is a move that is as misguided as it is predictable. It threatens to bring on needless costs for the system. And in as much as it virtually amounts to an admission of guilt, it would even appear to be bad political strategy for the UPA. Yet it falls into a pattern that is particularly of the UPA's making, consisting of a frequent and almost instinctive recourse to blunt instruments like bans, blacklists and the pre-emptive freeze. As long as the choppers satisfy the technical criteria, there should be no reason why the AgustaWestland deal itself should not stand. There are compelling reasons, on the other hand, for the machine to be separated from the bribe. The process, which ended with the Rs 3,546 crore deal being finalised in 2010, had begun more than a decade ago. Its cancellation now would mean going back to the drawing board, tendering, testing and selecting a vendor. It would take several more years for the deal to pass through the various portals of the bureaucracy. This Sisyphean cycle is emblematic of the problem that afflicts defence procurement in the country, often with sobering consequences for national security and military preparedness.

Last year, six defence firms, including Israel Military Industries, Germany's Rheinmetall and Russia's Corporation Defence, were blacklisted for 10 years. In effect, this has contributed to slowing and stalling the army's search for modern artillery. Cancelling, banning and blacklisting indiscriminately, instead of applying more specific penalties and correctives in cases of proven wrongdoing, could also end up reducing the number of options in the market, increasing the chances of the MoD being left to deal with a single vendor.

Military modernisation is an urgent imperative, ill-served both by the cultivated opaqueness of the system as well as its knee-jerk response to the merest hint of scandal. What India needs is a calibrated and pragmatic approach. There are viable alternatives to blacklisting and cancellation. Fines can be imposed, and the guilty individuals punished. Integrity pacts allow the money paid to be recovered if the terms are violated by the vendor. The defence procurement system needs to be overhauled to increase transparency and draw sharper lines of accountability, while at the same time opening itself up further to participation by private players.

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