The public accounts committee report and allegations of the defence minister hiding the Central vigilance commission’s report were the major causes behind the Congress led no-confidence motion in Parliament. The apparent aim was to embarrass the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government by highlighting the alleged corruption in the procurements hurriedly made by the ministry of defence during the limited war in Kargil.
Defence purchases have always been easy bait for avaricious politicians, bureaucrats and the army top brass. Kickbacks are a major attraction since arms deals are negotiated confidentially. In the recent past, there were allegations of a self-styled godman in India teaming up with international arms dealers to procure the advanced jet trainer Hawk, which had been shortlisted for procurement by the Indian air force. In South Africa, the company supplying the Hawk trainer was suspected to have already paid a huge bribe to get the contract.
The history of defence scandals in India can be traced to the late Fifties when V.K. Krishna Menon was the defence minister. Allegations of his involvement in a jeep scandal had created ripples in Parliament. During the short- lived Janata Dal rule of the Seventies, Jaguars were procured from the United Kingdom. Though the deal did not create tremors, fingers were raised at Jagjivan Ram, defence minister in the Morarji Desai regime, putting a question mark on the fairness of the deal.
The Eighties under Congress rule witnessed many large hurried deals. Besides the Bofors guns and HDW submarines, the major acquisitions included MiG-27 and MiG-29 fighters, MI-17, MI-25, MI-35 helicopters and EKM class submarines from the erstwhile Soviet Union. Similarly, Mirage-2000 multi-role combat aircraft from France and aircraft carrier INS Viraat together with Sea Harrier jump jets and Sea King naval helicopters were purchased. Strangely, when the Congress pushed through the deals, most of the time, the prime ministers also functioned as defence ministers.
Negotiations for the mammoth SU-30 deal with Moscow were completed during the P.V. Narasimha Rao regime, though the H.D. Deve Gowda government gave the final nod. Rao’s decision to release an advance of Rs 500 crore to the Russians in 1996 before demitting office was roundly criticized. Two years back, a list of spare parts submitted to the Delhi high court in connection with a writ petition also showed that they had been bought at exorbitant prices by the Indian navy.
Despite the fact that there existed an official ban on arms agents, former defence minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, had once stated that power brokers had tried to pressure him on defence contracts. A committee headed by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the then scientific advisor to the defence minister, was also set up to explore ways to eliminate middlemen.
Though George Fernandes had to quit as defence minister in the midst of an intense political turmoil, he had definitely played a positive role in getting the Augean stables cleaned by requesting the Central vigilance commissioner to probe defence deals since 1985. Last year, the CVC had reportedly issued a directive to the defence ministry advising it to carry out a thorough review of the existing ban on arms dealers since it was believed that the embargo had not only been a failure but also happened to be the source of corruption. Similarly, the comptroller and auditor general was also requested to conduct a special audit of some Kargil purchases.
There is no doubt that the government will have to be more transparent about defence purchases and simplify the procedure of arms procurement. Foolproof checks and balances will also need to be institutionalized. Eminent personalities, specialists in science and technology and the retired service chiefs need to be associated with weapon purchases. But no system, however foolproof, will deter the dishonest from devising methods of seeking gratification. That is so long as India continues to depend on foreign sources for its defence needs.