|Jitendra Singh at his South Block office on Monday. (PTI)
New Delhi, Oct. 29: Rahul Gandhi’s friend and adviser Jitendra Singh was baptised into the defence ministry’s St Antony School within minutes of taking over as the minister of state today.
A.K. Antony, who greeted the scion of the Alwar royal family, asked him to attend a scheduled Defence Acquisitions Council (DAC) meeting this afternoon that cleared purchases worth nearly Rs 3,000 crore.
But that was only after Antony’s speech at the beginning took up most of the 90-minute meeting, ministry sources said.
“The trials (vetting of equipment before they are bought) must be absolutely fair and transparent. One has to be very cautious,” Antony told the assembled bureaucrats and service chiefs, who make up the council said.
For Singh, who is also a minister of state (independent charge) for youth affairs and sports, it was an immediate introduction into the powers and perils of the defence ministry: On any day it will approve multimillion-dollar purchases and then attract flak from losing competitors or because an official in the hierarchy has been on the take.
The other minister of state for defence, Lalchand Kataria, is to join under Antony on Wednesday.
The immediate context of Antony’s “class” was the discovery of a letter with a Switzerland-based Italian executive that alleged an Indian army officer in charge of trials had asked for a $5 million kickback on a helicopter deal.
The proposal to buy 197 helicopters for the army has been pending with the DAC, which even today did not discuss it and effectively deferred it.
French-origin Eurocopter Fennec AS550C3 and Russian-origin Kamov 226T are competing for the contract that is estimated to cost about $800 million. The selected helicopter will replace the Army Aviation Corps’ outdated fleet.
Antony had rejected the army’s choice five years ago after reports emerged that the brother of an officer was employed by one of the companies.
This time, investigations ordered by a court in Naples, Italy, has led to searches of Finmeccanica executives.
Finmeccanica is a major supplier of armaments to India. The investigations are into allegations that its group company AgustaWestland made payoffs to win an Indian contract for 12 AW101 VVIP choppers.
During the investigation it emerged that Guido Haschke, an executive, had written a letter to his employers alleging that an Indian army brigadier (the name is being withheld) in charge of the trials for the 197 helicopters deal had asked for the bribe. The Indian defence ministry has requested the Italian authorities for more information.
The DAC, after Antony’s lesson, approved three major buys:
A hush-hush project for two naval “Special Operations Vehicles” that will be built by the defence undertaking in Hindustan Shipyard, Visakhapatnam. The vessels will cost Rs 1,700 crore.
Defence ministry officials did not confirm whether the vessels would be manned or unmanned. But Hindustan Shipyard is believed to be working on the design for an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle.
The Special Operations Vehicles are likely to be amphibious — capable of surface and underwater operations. They may or may not also be troop-transporters.
A cadet training ship for the navy estimated to cost about Rs 480 crore. The contract is being awarded to Gujarat-based ABG Shipyard that claims to run the largest private yard in the country.
Nearly 2,500 night vision devices for the army called hand-held thermal imagers. These are likely to be imported and will cost about Rs 800 crore.