Irrefutable, substantiated discourse must for ensuring probity.

 

Past three decades of politics in India have been dominated by scams and allegations. Every acquisition, especially in the defence sector, ends up in accusation. As Defence Minister in the Rajiv Gandhi Cabinet, Vishwanath Pratap Singh set the ball rolling by questioning the purchase of Bofors howitzers. “Paisa khaya kaun dalal?” was his leitmotif. Three decades later the query remains unanswered. This question however has acquired an iconic status in political discourse. Decisions are held up as not taking a decision is perhaps the best recourse to avoid becoming the butt of this clamour.

The 1999 Kargil war saw the Bofors howitzers perform and oust the Pakistani infiltrators who were perched on strategic heights. The Kargil operation was a military masterstroke: Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s statesmanship ensured that Indian troops did not cross the LOC while chasing away the invaders. Mirage jets of the Air Force, acquired in 1982 from France’s Dassault Aviation acted in tandem with Bofors guns to establish Indian armed forces’ supremacy in Kargil. An offshoot of the operation was the realisation that next generation aircraft needed to be inducted. Two decades have passed since then. After much dalliance, Rafale, also from the Dassault stable, has been chosen and this acquisition too has become a political tool, a la Bofors. Our not so friendly neighbours are bolstering their defence equipment fast, while India neither manages to match China in producing state of the art munitions nor keep pace with Pakistan’s ever widening sources of ordnance.

Bribery in arms deals has been reported from many countries in recent years, especially from South Africa. Substantiated charges, levelled by politicians and investigated diligently by the media have resulted in a company like UK’s BAE (which sold guns and fighter jets to South Africa, Romania, Czech Republic and Tanzania) cough up a fine of $400 million in 2010 after Serious Fraud Office of UK found the firm guilty of “false accounting” (the word bribery was bypassed). Hence allegation of bribery in defence needn’t be taboo: hearsay and innuendo however cannot be the tools of these inquisitions.

Rafale and Augusta Westland deals are the current dominant “scams” in India’s political discourse. Selective exposé seems to be the tool of those who raise their finger. There is brouhaha over Anil Ambani getting a part (not entire, as alleged) of the Rafale offsets, apparently denying that opportunity to public sector Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL). According to one report largely ignored by the media, in his deposition to the Enforcement Directorate, Augusta middleman James Christian Michel has disclosed that in 2010 a Tata firm, India Rotorcraft was chosen by Augusta Westland as its joint venture partner for India not only for the VVIP choppers but also other types of helicopters. This was done by avoiding HAL. A gentleman who now serves on the Tata board was then at the helm of the Ministry of Defence, which owns HAL. And in 2010 the government of the day had the adumbration of Rahul Gandhi, who is now questioning why Anil Ambani overrode HAL.

If defence production is to be privatised, then firms with no previous experience have to be given an opportunity, subject to due diligence by the foreign technology partner. The Tata firm in 2010 was in the same boat as Anil Ambani’s Nagpur firm as far as past experience in aerospace was concerned. Foreign manufacturers will not stake their reputation by choosing a joint venture partner on extra-technical considerations. India’s defence offset policy, put on anvil by the Manmohan Singh regime, ensures the primacy of the foreign manufacturer in choosing its Indian partner. The ripple effect of the present brouhaha on future offset-oriented technology deals is perhaps overlooked by those crying wolf.

Howitzers are being developed with advanced foreign technological collaboration by L&T, Mahindra and Bharat Forge groups. Of these, while Bharat Forge may claim some experience of forgings for defence equipment, the others are entering the sphere de novo. Ordnance Factory Board, which has the history of developing indigenous equipment in tandem with DRDO, is competing with the foreign-technology howitzers with its Dhanush. The new paradigm cannot guarantee monopoly of public sector defence manufacturers as the detractors of the Rafale deal seem to prefer.

The first scam which surfaced post-Independence was the Jeep scandal in 1948 when the then High Commissioner of India to the UK, V.K. Krishna Menon, was alleged to have acquired Jeeps for the Army without following procedure. In 1955 the then Home Minister Govind Ballabh Pant closed the probe telling Parliament that nothing substantial has been found and that the Opposition need not harp on the issue on the eve of general elections.

The same year, the first substantiated allegation was levelled in Parliament by “back bencher” Feroze Gandhi. He alleged that a businessman, Haridas Mundhra had been bailed out of financial insolvency by the then Finance Minister, T.T. Krishnamachari misusing his influence over LIC. The Haridas Mundhra LIC insurance scandal was sent for probe by a retired chief justice of the Bombay High Court, Muhammad Currim Chagla, whose report resulted in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Finance Minister being sacked and Mundhra being sent to jail for 22 years. Feroze Gandhi was termed as “giant killer” (the first Indian politician to get this epithet) in December 1957. He relied not on abuse nor innuendo, but diligently presented facts on the floor of Parliament and before the Chagla commission to earn the title. Feroze Gandhi did no demand a JPC, but relied upon judicial process.

In the UK, since the 1920s, when probe by select committee on the Marconi scandal saw MPs divided on party lines and not seek truth without blinkers, the tradition has been to entrust probes to the judiciary under the Commissions of Enquiry Act and let policy be the realm of joint parliamentary panels.

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