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Letter bombs tick on Fernandes

New Delhi, April 20: Former defence minister George Fernandes's troubles linked to deals cut with the South African weapons manufacturer, Denel, may have just begun.

Close on the heels of the disclosure that the South African government-owned company may have paid a commission, illegal in India, while selling anti-materiel rifles and ammunition and obtained secret government minutes related to the deal, the Congress is loading another Denel gun to attack Fernandes.

As it demanded an inquiry into the purchase, the party alleged that the defence ministry under Fernandes had shown special interest in seeking to award to Denel a much bigger order for supply of 155mm tracked and wheeled self-propelled guns (300 units) worth over Rs 6,500 crore.

When the Vajpayee government opted for early Lok Sabha polls in February 2004, Denel was ' and remains to this day ' a leading contender for the order, sources said. SBS Defence Systems AB, of which Bofors is now a part, is also bidding for the order.

Between August 2003 and January 2004, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, now water resources minister and chief whip of the Congress during NDA's tenure, had written three 'confidential' letters to then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee raising questions about the government's plans to purchase the self-propelled guns from Denel at an 'exorbitant' price.

Vajpayee had acknowledged the receipt of Das Munshi's first letter of August 16, 2003. 'I am passing on your letter to the raksha mantri, Shri George Fernandes,' Vajpayee wrote in his reply.

Since after that there was no response, Das Munshi, who was a member of the defence consultative committee, wrote two more letters to Vajpayee. Copies of the letters were sent to all members of Vajpayee's Cabinet Committee on Security ' L.K. Advani, Fernandes, Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha ' on October 28, 2003, and January 23, 2004.

With defence deals under Fernandes grabbing attention, Das Munshi has drawn the notice of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and party chief Sonia Gandhi to the letters.

The letters say Fernandes's ministry was:

Avoiding competitive global tenders and creating a single-vendor situation to award the contract for self-propelled guns to Denel;

Trying to virtually bail out a sick company which would collapse if India did not place a huge order;

Negotiating to pay a price of $5 million per gun to Denel when the requirement could be met from other suppliers at nearly half the price;

Ignoring that the gun, at 60 tonnes, is overweight;

Overlooking that the gun's engine was of German origin, exposing the defence forces to the whims of countries known for imposing sanctions;

Bypassing the requirement of field trials in India and Indian conditions; and

Glossing over Denel's continued supply to Pakistan.

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