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04 March, 2014

Accidents revelatory

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Chief of Naval Staff Admiral DK Joshi’s resignation last week, assuming moral responsibility for a series of accidents under his watch, has raised a host of issues about the goings-on in India’s defence establishment.

Joshi put in his papers within hours of a fire outbreak aboard the Sindhuratna, a recently refitted Russian-built submarine, in which two officers were killed and seven others injured. It was the tenth accident since an explosion in another submarine, the Sindhurakshak, killed all 18 crewmembers on board, seven months ago.

Defence experts have questioned the government’s swift acceptance of Joshi’s resignation without making any effort to persuade him to stay on. Some of them squarely blame the civilian administration for the sad state of affairs revealed by the accidents.

AK Antony, India’s longest serving Defence Minister, has been at the post since 2007. He was given charge of the department, which was mired in scandals over kickbacks in procurements, mainly because of his reputation as a politician with a clean image. His extremely cautious approach, stemming from a desire to avoid wrongdoing, has inordinately delayed decision-making and slowed down modernisation of the defence forces. Antony has blacklisted several companies which reportedly paid bribes to get Indian orders. Recent revelations in an Italian court about kickbacks in a helicopter deal suggest that corruption in defence purchases has not come to an end.

The names mentioned in the Italian proceedings include those of former Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi, and three of his cousins. Antony cancelled the order for helicopters as soon as the kickback report surfaced. He can derive some comfort from the fact that the name of no politician has come up.

The chopper deal illustrates how tardy the decision-making process is. It was in 1999 that the government decided to buy 12 helicopters for the squadron that handles flights of high dignitaries. An order worth $570 million was finally placed with Augusta Westland of the UK, a subsidiary of Finmeccanica of Italy, in 2010.

It has been alleged that the helicopter specifications were revised mid-way to make the Italian-British conglomerate eligible to compete. Following the Italian court revelations, the Central Bureau of Investigation registered a case and initiated steps to prevent the Tyagis and other Indian suspects from leaving the country. But there has been little progress in the Indian investigation.

The first major defence scandal to hit the headlines related to the 1986 deal with AB Bofors of Sweden for the supply of 410 howitzers for $285 million. The following year the Swedish radio reported that the company had paid bribes to win the order. Media reports mentioned the names of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and some of his friends in this connection.

The CBI, which took up investigation, filed a charge-sheet in which Gandhi, his family friend and Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi and Bofors CEO Martin Ardbo were among the accused. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and the other accused died natural deaths as the investigations went on interminably.

In a book published last year, former CBI Director AP Mukherjee, says Rajiv Gandhi told him that middlemen were being excluded from defence deals in order to raise funds for the Congress party. Assuming that he is telling the truth, he also appears to have unwittingly revealed why the corrupt are able to get away. India has no Deep Throat who wants to save the system even if it calls for sacrifice of a political executive. Instead, there are careerists ready to hold on to information until they are of no material use.

Several defence analysts have pointed out that delays in defence procurement are leaving the forces ill-equipped at a time of changes in the strategic environment. They attribute the delays primarily to the bureaucrats.

They have also voiced concern at the growth in trust deficit between the military and defence bureaucracy under Antony. Some troop movements which took place near the capital when Chief of Army Staff General VK Singh moved the Supreme Court against the government on the issue of his age had led to suspicions of a coup attempt.

The issues the experts have pointed out demand urgent resolution but the Manmohan Singh government which is at the fag end of its term cannot be expected to address them. They must wait until after the parliamentary elections in May.-- Gulf Today, Sharjat, March 4, 2014

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