AugustaWestland in familiar terrain
Nearly seventy years since Independence, failed indigenisation to make weaponry or even basic military wares has shamed India into the dubious distinction as the world’s top arms purchaser in recent times. In the period 2011-2015, India singularly accounted for 14 percent of global imports (double of the second biggest importer, Saudi Arabia at 7 percent). Beyond aircraft and tanks, the stark reality is that we have been unable to develop, even a credible rifle for a standing army of a million soldiers. Despite multiple military engagements (‘62, ‘65, ‘71, Kargil, etc.), regular deployments and insurgency commitments, till date, high-quality clothing and footwear have to be imported.
Unlike other thriving sectors like IT, Pharma, or service industries where we are competitive at the global level, the Defence sector was the exclusive preserve of the highly inefficient public sector, with the private sector specifically debarred, till recently. Secondly, the “committee culture” has ensured multiple governmental committees to ascertain the reasons for non-competitiveness in Defence manufacturing without affixing sharp blames or focusing on implementation, ensuring debilitating perpetuity. The last but not the least, is the excruciating curse of the deliberate and ultra-secretive process of Defence procurement that is the sole prerogative of the “non-uniformed” and time-serving politicians and civil servants, neither of whom are adequately versed with matters military - coupled to the that is the institutional gag and self-imposed discipline of public silence by the serving Chief’s of the three services, whilst in chair.
The rare “soldier” Defence Minister in the form of Jaswant Singh had noted prophetically, way back in 1981, “Let those who will have to fight with the weapons decide for themselves what arms they need. They are the ones who are actually going to die. There is such a thing as the feel of cold steel and nothing ever replaces that experience”. Lessons weren’t learnt then, they remain unlearnt now, and not surprisingly after the taints of the Bofors, HDW submarines, Tatra trucks to now the Augusta Westland Helicopters (though strictly speaking, the deal for 12 AW101 helicopters was for VIP duties and not for conventional military roles), the saga of corruption continues.
In November 2015, the Global Defence Anti-Corruption Index as released by the global watchdog, Transparency International stated the obvious – Indian Defence deals are mired by corruption, inexplicable secrecy and absence of accountability. The ‘D’ category status afforded on India indicates “high vulnerability to corruption”, even today. What differentiates India from New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan and Japan (as the cleanest countries in Defence Corruption Index) is not the absence of institutional structure and mechanism to check corruption - we have the control agencies like PAC (Public Accounts Committee), CAG (Controller and Auditor General), besides mandatory clearances from CCS (Cabinet Committee on Security) etc. The real devil lies in the absence of a culture or appreciation of Defence requirements and preparedness, and therefore, the questionable scrutiny methodology by ill-equipped people, lack of independent or empowered watchdog constituents who are not “influenceable” by governmental/administrative concerns and lastly the toothless powers afforded on the Military itself, both pre and post the purchase of weaponry.
What steals the thunder, makes the headlines, spikes the TRP’s and charges the narrative is the side-show of personality focus and competitive politics that typically accompanies the first green shoots of any scandal – this theatre and spectacle is completely bereft of the real issue that feeds and sustains the perennial curse of corruption i.e. the absence of a strategic National Defence doctrine with a credible and enforceable roadmap, convenient and condescending secrecy that accompanies Defence deals and the lack of an empowered body that decides, bites and adjudicates decisions in an independent environment (e.g. answerable to the parliament and not the government).
So, hyper-nationalistic vitriol that seeks either character assassinations or political dividends in short term takes precedence and total control of the corruption story – gloves come off, impromptu and fantastic judgements by politicians and news anchors ensues, while the sleaze and rot of the revolving doors for arms dealers, vested interests and shady influencers continues, the dodgy dealmakers bide their time for the din to die down and then they resurface to poach the next deal when it secretly emerges to the know of a select few.
Augusta Westland has undeniable murk and the same is acknowledged across the political spectrum, including the former Defence Minister AK Anthony who went as far as to say, “…We had initiated the process to blacklist Augusta Westland, its parent company Finmeccanica and all its subsidiaries”. Kickbacks were formally confirmed by the Italian courts and therefore, it is imperative to investigate and prosecute anyone (irrespective of the office or chair held), who is either convicted or has substantive evidence against them as required by the courts of the land – however, optics have been hijacked with clear finger pointing at political opponents who are neither convicted (in Italy or India), nor have substantive and specific mention in court proceedings, akin to the Jain Hawala case where assorted names of senior leadership of both ruling parties resulted in much public mudslinging without any conclusive conviction for lack of admissible evidence. Here, accusations and aspersions, especially when the country in question is Italy, is a delicious political opportunity to feed the imagination of the constituents – however, the seriousness of kickbacks and sleaze in arms procurement to ensure that it does not happen again requires conviction (by courts) and institutional empowerment and independence – neither of which is getting discussed or fretted over.
Augusta Westland is threatening to fly into the dangerous and cancerous route of temporary political excitement that is milked for short-term exigencies, while the soldier remains under-armed, under-paid (remember the jumla called, OROP) and under-involved, in matters that pertain to security. Corruption is endemic and it seeks a fundamental cure that can come through a curative and preventive processes and not just by giving a name or face to it, which may or may not be the right one as claimed by politicians of all hues.
(Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd), is former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. The views expressed are strictly personal.)