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LIFTING THE LID

- A.K. Antony and the problem of corruption

“Will Minister Antony resign?” More than any other, this is the one question that I have been asked by Americans in recent weeks about the defence minister who has been in the news for the better part of this year. Most of the people asking this question have some connection with the military-industrial complex in the United States of America or the country’s defence and strategic community.

The reality, howsoever unpalatable, is that few defence ministers can survive after incurring the personal displeasure of an American defence secretary, unless they are defence ministers in Russia and China or in countries like Iran or North Korea, which are in various stages of confrontation with the US.

A.K. Antony attracted the wrath of the Obama administration last year by his determined refusal to receive the then defence secretary, Robert Gates, who tried to inject himself into a US delegation that was to travel to India for the second round of the “strategic dialogue” between New Delhi and Washington. Gates wanted to lobby with Antony on behalf of American companies, which were then in the running for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft being sought by the Indian air force, the biggest military aviation deal hitherto.

Antony made it clear to his cabinet colleagues, who were persuaded by the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to plead the case of the Pentagon’s civilian head, that if Gates arrived with Clinton he would go to the remotest location in Kerala where even his mobile phone had no signal for the duration of the American’s stay in New Delhi. Kerala was then in the middle of its state assembly election campaign, which gave Antony enough of an excuse to be in his home state.

The defence secretary did not give up. Gates used the ruse that he was demitting office in July and that he wanted to make a farewell call on Antony: at that point, April was being considered for the strategic dialogue, which eventually had to be postponed because of the defence minister’s insistence that he will not meet Gates as long as the aircraft contract was at a sensitive stage in the acquisition process.

Pentagon officials have told reporters on background that “the defence secretary was informed that it would be suicidal” for Antony to meet Gates and that this message was conveyed by Indian diplomats in Washington, who were negotiating the strategic dialogue arrangements with the Obama administration at that time.

At the end of April 2011, American companies were eliminated from the race for the multi-role combat planes, the US ambassador, Timothy Roemer, resigned the next day, and Gates lost any further interest in making his farewell call on Antony. The strategic dialogue eventually took place in July last year without a top-level defence participation.

After an unstated policy of having no ministerial exchanges in defence for 50 years — except on a solitary occasion, that too botched — US defence secretaries have lately taken exceptional interest in their Indian counterparts and senior Indian ministers in the last decade. The most famous of such exchanges was when Donald Rumsfeld, who was predecessor to Gates, called on the deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, at his hotel on a Sunday in a well publicized effort to highlight a new chemistry in their ties.

Rumsfeld felt somewhat proprietary about the new defence relationship that the administration of George W. Bush considerably advanced with India, but luckily for New Delhi, he did not stay at the Pentagon long enough to see Washington’s hope of bagging the much-sought-after combat aircraft deal crumble into dust. There is no saying how the mercurial Rumsfeld would have reacted to such a disappointment. Gates, a man of great dignity, took the setback in his stride, at least in public.

The Pentagon is not alone in being disgruntled by Antony’s ways. He has consistently refused to visit Israel, which interchangeably shares the first or second spots with Russia among the sources of arms imports for India.

As if to add injury to insult, last month the defence ministry blacklisted Israel Military Industries for 10 years for allegedly paying bribes to secure contracts in India. IMI is not just another arms-seller. It is owned by the government in Tel Aviv, a leading weapons manufacturer for Israel’s defence forces.

It was not expected that Tel Aviv will take the ban lying down. Additionally, the ban by Antony’s ministry has cast a shadow over plans by the Netanyahu government to privatize IMI. There are now question marks about the timing of the privatization: if the world’s number one arms buyer — India — has found IMI unsuitable to do business with, it could have ramifications for investors seeking to buy into the company.

Those familiar with New Delhi’s lay of the land in such matters were not, therefore, surprised when grumblings of discontent, which began as whispers after Antony rebuffed Gates, grew louder following the rejection of American bids for the multi-role combat aircraft. It was not entirely unexpected that after the decision against the Israelis, Antony would be put in a spot by a steady flow of news stories and purportedly thoughtful op-ed articles.

The Americans and the Israelis are not alone in being at the receiving end of Antony’s efforts in full throttle to do what he can to curb corruption in defence purchases and create a level playing field. Singapore is a country with which India enjoys a relationship that is totally free of trouble. That has not, however, prevented Antony from banning Singapore Technologies Kinetics from future contracts for a decade.

This land systems and specialty vehicles company has launched an all out bid to clear its name, including recourse to the Supreme Court. It has also threatened to seek international arbitration, creating an irritant in bilateral relations.

Russian defence suppliers who have had a free run of New Delhi’s procurement process for many decades have similarly been slapped with punitive sanctions as part of Antony’s anti-graft drive. The defence minister has further angered Swiss, South African and many more arms manufacturers, lining up a formidable array of forces, all of which would be glad to see him move out of his present job.

Typically, nobody is criticizing Antony for cracking down on corruption. Instead, the strategy of those who want him out of the way is to attack Antony for slowing down the modernization of the armed forces by creating bottlenecks in arms purchases, and for creating a trust deficit between the civilian and uniformed segments of the defence establishment. All in all, the effort is to show up the defence minister as a man incapable of running an enterprise as vast and complex as the one for which he is tasked with providing leadership.

The age controversy about General V.K. Singh, the army chief, was the best thing that Antony’s detractors could have hoped for. Unfortunately for the defence minister, both propriety and constitutionality demand that he cannot truthfully tell his side of the story.

For instance, Antony personally believes that the army chief is not lying about his age and that General Singh was born in 1951. Similarly, the General has been a steadfast ally of Antony in what the latter is trying to do about corruption in the defence establishment. It may be a hard idea to sell, especially after a sensational story about troop movements, but the personal warmth and respect for each other between Antony and Singh are nothing short of total. Which is why there has been no move to dismiss the army chief or get him to resign. Even though Antony believes that General Singh made a mistake about his date of birth, an episode from his own past prevents Antony from doing anything about it except to follow the letter of the law. Antony was chief minister of Kerala when a similar controversy dogged the state government.

Raman Srivastava, an Indian Police Service officer of the Kerala cadre who became director-general of the state police and later headed the Border Security Force, was at the centre of this controversy. A mere five months separate him and his brother, Vikram Srivastava, an IPS officer of the Uttar Pradesh cadre, who became director-general of the Central Reserve Police Force: a biological impossibility since both the brothers were born of the same mother.

As chief minister, Antony did not allow the Kerala cadre officer to change his date of birth. There is no way he would have acted any differently with General Singh. What is more, it is Antony’s estimate that there are at least 3,000 such cases of incorrect birthdays in government service records. That is a Pandora’s Box, which is best left shut.