Friday, March 1, 2024

Can CBI tackle defence deals faultines?


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By Brig. (Retd) S. N. Sachadeva

The Chief of Staff of the Indian Army, Gen. V.K. Singh, lost his age discrepancy suit in the apex court, but still stands tall on integrity and honesty. He may have been indiscreet and erred in his moves to put across his view points. However, he has carved out a unique place for himself in the annals of the Indian army. General Singh stood up against certain “internal forces” that harbour powerful arms lobbies. Arms lobby has been a fact of life in this country even before the Bofors gun deal scandal hit the headlines in the eighties. It is active but hidden even after rules are framed by Parliament as a consequence to the field gun acquisition scandal.

The nation today is closely watching the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the Czech Tatra truck deal and the associated bribe charge. The allegation is that the Army Chief was offered Rs. 14 crore slush money in September 2010 if he cleared the procurement of “substandard” trucks for the force’s use. In his formal complaint to the CBI, Gen. Singh has named retired Lt. Gen. Tejinder Singh as the person who made the bribe offer to him on behalf of the UK-based arms dealer Ravinder Rishi of the Vectra group.

If the CBI is serious, it could get to the bottom of the shady deal. Despite the CBI, we may or may not get the real truth. Unravelling such details in the Indian context is often a gigantic and difficult task. There are wheels within wheels, and one cannot be sure which wheel moves which one, and to whose advantage. Still, some basic facts about the Czech truck deal are evident. The Vectra group has supplied 5,000 Tatra trucks to the Indian Army through the assembling facility of the state-owned Bharat Earth Movers Ltd (BEML). The zigzag supply route acts as a camouflage for the shady dealings. The Indian system moves through its merry-go- rounds that are well oiled by the arms lobby and its money power. This is one harsh truth that is acknowledged, but in a hush-hush manner.

Going by the statements of the defence minister, A.K. Antony, it looks the government is quite serious about unearthing the hidden points of the deal. But we have to take such pledges with a pinch of salt. One can fully understand the defence minister’s political and personal compulsions. Middlemen in defence deals thrive even though the law of the land has specifically barred them. There are still flaws in the system. We have to see how the CBI goes about its highly sensitive task of investigation of the Tetra truck deal and reveals if and how such fault lines were used to distort the system.

Gen. V. K. Singh has done a great service to the country by, wittingly or unwittingly, putting to public focus two critical issues: (1) bribery pay-offs in arms procurement, and (2) defence preparedness and modernization of the armed forces. A responsive government should gracefully acknowledge them instead of raking up technicalities and points of protocol and propriety. The conduct of the army chief right from the date of birth row to the bribery offer and the letter sent to the prime minister (PM) is secondary.

Who leaked that letter should be seriously investigated. It may be difficult to precisely spot the point of leakage, but it is evident that its intention was to “fix” the General and put him in the dock. But the establishment that is full of such over smart characters has apparently miscalculated the general’s moves.

Equally disturbing is the suggestion made by certain quarters that the General should either be sacked or asked to go on leave. It could be disastrous as transparency and accountability are yet to firm up in defence matters. Issues arising from Gen. V. K. Singh’s letter and bribe offer charges cannot be brushed aside by pious declarations. Honest persons with integrity are anathema to the vested interests that survive on their manipulative ability. For them it is quick money through massive defence deals and sub-deals. Who cares if the losers at the other end are the people and national exchequer? Whether we like it or not, it is a harsh truth in today’s scam-ridden polity.

Recently I happened to speak to a number of armed forces personnel. They were candid about the frightening gaps in arms and ammunition “vis a vis” the alarming expansion of China’s military might on the borders. Shortcomings in special tank ammunition (APSDS), artillery guns and the army’s air defence network are ground realities. The Army Chief has brought these gaps several times to the attention of the defence minister and the ministry of defence (MoD’s) key bureaucrats. The general’s letter to the PM has to be seen as yet another wake-up call to the civilian authorities. But then, who cares? Obviously, the persons who matter have conveniently forgotten the lessons of the 1962 debacle in the border clashes with China.

An objective analysis of the country’s security issues will reveal why things are sliding down again. The UPA government is in a state of drift now. It seems to have lost its grip on all vital national affairs. The leadership is caught in a never ending saga of scams and corruption. There is no point in emphasising the obvious point of “our honest PM”. His problems, compulsions and helplessness are understandable, but not his indecisiveness on vital policy matters. The people will be solidly behind him if he moves fast to set the system of governance in order. All that he is expected to do is to act as prime minister of substance. The image of “helplessness” helps neither him nor the country.

Mr. prime minister, the Army Chief should not be subjected to politics and witch-hunting for raising certain relevant questions. Nor should the entrenched bureaucrats be allowed to play their petty games to “fix” him. We have to support the top soldier who is entrusted with the task of defending the borders. There can be no shortcuts in defence matters. The country’s security must not be compromised on any count.

India has well-defined norms for defence purchasing. It must start with the Service concerned making out a case to the MoD for procurement of an item. And then the MoD calls for an appraisal of the performance and cost of different systems available in the world market. An expert committee at the respective Service headquarters is asked for a report to the ministry. The choice is then worked out by the MoD and defence minister in consultation with the prime minister. Then the deal is finalised by the ministry. It is specified that there should not be any middlemen or commission payment in the deal as all defence and other purchases are mostly on government to government transactions.


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