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A LONELY CAMPAIGN

- India needs an arms trade treaty to fight corruption in high places

The defence minister and de facto number two in the United Progressive Alliance government, A.K. Antony, may not realize the full significance of what he is doing. Had he been an American politician, Antony would have hired a high-powered public relations firm, engaged a lobbyist and converted a lonely campaign within his government against corruption in the arms trade into a global moral crusade that would have put him in the list of nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize. But Antony grew up in Travancore, now a part of Kerala, which was alienated politically from New Delhi in the very first general election in free India in 1952. Nor did he ever look up the tricks of political high-fliers that are de rigueur in Washington, which some of the younger members of the UPA council of ministers are fast picking up with finesse.

Besides, with only 20 members of Parliament from Kerala, Antony could not excel in chicanery of the kind that Haryana, with just 10 MPs led by Bansi Lal or Devi Lal, could perfect in the national capital that is just across their state’s border. It is only very recently, in the last six or seven years, with the Congress decisively out of the running in the more populous north Indian states, that Antony has come into his own in statecraft at the national level.

But these handicaps ought not to blind Antony to the huge significance of what he is doing to fight corruption in arms purchases. If the defence minister is defeated in this fight, it will not be a loss for India alone. The world stands to grievously lose from Antony’s defeat. Make no mistake, if Antony fails in his effort, it would be because those who want to see him fail would have been aided by some colleagues who profess to be his friends.

Based on statistics from the World Bank and the well- respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, it has recently been estimated that illicit gains every year through corruption in the armaments trade worldwide is equivalent to the total money pledged by the Group of Eight industrialized countries four years ago to fight global hunger. This underlines that Antony’s fight is not India’s fight alone. It is mankind’s struggle, to salvage its future at a time of shrinking resources and will.

Good intentions alone, however, are no guarantee of success in a worthy cause. In fact, quite the contrary could be the case in a field as dirty as the arms trade. Transparency International, the world’s leading non-governmental anti- corruption organization, published last month what it claims is the first global index of state corruption in defence deals. It analyses the record of 82 countries that collectively accounted for as much as 94 per cent of military expenditure worldwide in 2011. That expenditure added up to the equivalent of 1.6 trillion dollars. With that kind of money at stake it is no surprise that there is a perennial temptation among those who decide how to spend this money to put their fingers in the till. That should, all the more, be reason to watch out for illegality in armaments deals.

To the contrary, however, Transparency International discovered in the course of compiling its index that only two countries, Germany and Australia, have robust mechanisms to guard against corruption in defence deals. It is instructive from the point of view of an ongoing debate in India over alleged irregularities in the purchase of VVIP helicopters that in both Germany and Australia, there is overarching parliamentary oversight of defence policy. But not in India. “In 45 per cent of countries there is little or no oversight of defence policy and in half of nations there is minimal evidence of scrutiny of defence procurement,” Transparency International concluded. “In 70 per cent of the countries, citizens are denied a simple indication of how much is spent by their government on secret items.”

A companion index to this pattern of shortcomings in governments brought out last October showed that defence industries compound the failures of the State in creating a fertile ground for corruption. Antony could set an example by doing some cleaning up at home, even as he punishes foreign suppliers who feed on the greed of middlemen and others in the country who swing lucrative contracts for them.

It should not come as a surprise to those who look up this second index that public-sector Bharat Earth Movers Limited was at the centre of the last major arms procurement scandal to hit the UPA government before the ongoing helicopter controversy: the purchase of Tatra trucks for the Indian army. BEML and state-owned Bharat Electronics Limited are placed in “Band- F” of this index, which is reserved for 45 defence-related companies worldwide that have little or no anti-corruption systems in place. BEL, for those who may not have heard about the company, supplies advanced electronic products for the defence forces and is one of eight or so public-sector undertakings under Antony’s ministry.

Hindustan Aeronautics, which handles hundreds of crores of taxpayer money is in “Band-D” of the index with limited anti-corruption systems. HAL will soon be right at the centre of the next big arms deal, the purchase of 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft, irrespective of where it is purchased from. Finmeccanica — whose head was arrested at the insistence of Italian prosecutors a few days ago for allegedly bribing Indians in the VVIP chopper deal — is actually better off in “Band-C” with a moderate image of corruption.

So why not start with a bit of spring-cleaning at home along with attempts to cleanse foreign companies. The Finmeccanica scandal is understood to have persuaded Antony that with a huge defence modernization challenge ahead, self-reliance in arms production should be promoted. “Imports should be the last resort,” he said at the Second International Seminar on Army Air Defence in New Delhi last week, clearly giving expression to his frustrations in being unable to rein in corrupt foreign arms manufacturers.

But it would be a mistake to entrust public-sector undertakings with new responsibilities in defence modernization before robust anti-corruption guarantees are built into their structures. Otherwise not only will the floodgates of corruption be opened to them, the country’s defence itself could be placed at risk. Since anti-corruption is Antony’s creed, at the core of his life’s mission, he should involve himself in giving a new dimension to the negotiations now under way at the United Nations for an arms trade treaty or ATT.

India’s involvement in these negotiations has so far been left to the ministry of external affairs. But the ministry of defence has a legitimate role in the talks, given India’s place at the top of global arms-procuring governments. ATT negotiations owe their origin to a lamentable lack of internationally agreed standards to ensure that arms are transferred responsibly. It is understandable — indeed, encouraging — that the MEA has used these negotiations to protect India’s interests in limiting arms transfers from across its borders to non-state actors who constitute terrorist threats and other similar destabilizing factors. But Antony could give a meaningful global dimension to his campaign against corruption by insisting that Indian negotiators add corruption in arms transfers as an integral threat to responsible arms trade.

The General Assembly has authorized a new UN conference on creating an ATT, which will convene in New York for 10 days from March 18. This conference could be a starting point in this effort. A robust anti-corruption mechanism in a comprehensive ATT could well be Antony’s legacy. If Antony had been a Washington politician he would have seen to it that it was so.