AgustaWestland case: Don’t hold your breath, middlemen are here to stay….writes Bikram Vohra
You can make as much noise as you like but linking the bribes to specific persons is more an exercise in ‘choose your enemy’ and target him or her than finding any trail that indicts the guilty individual. You can find a few scapegoats on the way, but what we do wrong is push our investigations into avenues where the ‘target’ has been predetermined. Hence, the total opacity of the probe.
The fact that India cancelled the deal for the 12 VVIP AgustaWestland choppers (even though three were sent over for testing) robs the whole scandal of its sting. Even so, it is laughable in the extreme to watch the display of sweeping indignation… as if taking bribes for military hardware shopping was a novel concept.
From the days of the Bofors scandal (in which all the dramatis personae are now dead) to the Czech pistol stink in the 1990s, the list is long and eclectic. There was the hooha over the purchase of the Kiev-class carrier INS Vikramaditya. Then we had the clumsy shift from replacing the single-engine Mirage 2000 with the twin-engine Dassault Rafale (an ongoing and most boring aircraft shopping sortie ever) and no explanation as to how this magical transformation occurred or why.
No one wants to discuss the 37 years it took to finally get the Arjuna Main Battle Tank — made at home — going (heavy budget overruns) or why the T-90 was chosen from Russia to stand in for this vacant role. The shoddiness hasn’t stopped here.
India even bought Kargil conflict coffins to bring the fallen home at a 1,300 percent mark-up, but the ugliness of it was swept away. General VK Singh has gone on record as saying he was offered a bribe to purchase below-par Tatra trucks when he was chief. By a retired army officer whose identity was never disclosed. The recent Adarsh Cooperative venture was also meant for the next of kin of Kargil martyrs and what can be done now is give it to disabled veterans as a ‘home’.
Talk about a stink and nothing can beat the hanky-panky in the purchase of frozen meat for our troops in Ladakh under the ‘watchful’ eye of a thre- star general who was finally court-martialled. In 2007, another general was caught overpricing rations for troops in high-altitude postings.
Isn’t it ironic that India still buys as many as 10 essential items of clothing for its troops up there. In 2016.
Then we had the Barak missile scam in which India had agreed to buy seven systems from Israel but after it was discovered the price had been padded, the deal fell through.
So what has all this got to do with the current scandal? For one, there is a pattern. For another, whether it is politician or bureaucrat or service personnel the greed aspect does manifest itself especially if the product is good.
There was nothing wrong with the Bofors gun, that scandal being the generic for every such deception. VP Singh wanted to catch Rajiv Gandhi and so we, as a nation, lost the ammunition, the literature and documentation and the maintenance rights to the 410 guns, most of which had to be cannibalised.
There is nothing wrong with the AgustaWestland choppers either. It’s the corrupt mindset that wrecks India’s ventures into the hardware market. As one of the largest arms buyers in the world, we are in demand. We are seen by the market as a nation where bribes are part of the deal. So they offer bribes.
Middlemen have middlemen and none of it has stopped. Hiring former military personnel is now encouraged. Ministry of Defence mandarins have no real idea of what is what, so they also mince about passing files waiting for the top echelons to give the nod in a specific direction. Do you think middleman Christian Michel is ever going to come to India and provide documentation of the deceit? He will sit abroad and perhaps fling a few names, there will be shrieks from those so indicted verbally and more confusion, a sort of pick your target free-for-all.
The choppers have gone. The money must have gone. The links will have broken by now and all we are doing is playing political pin the tail on the donkey. In this high-tech age, every force knows its requirements. It has the wherewithal and is familiar with what is on the market. You know you won’t buy third-generation fighter aircraft when you can invest in drones. Why look for bombers when you can purchase missile systems? What is your battle terrain, who is your enemy, where is your vulnerability?
What we need to appreciate most in getting our act together is the basic lesson. Indian military purchases do not follow regulated and transparent systems. There is no time-bound concept and equipment trials are arbitrary.
Too many opinions and too many discussions and not all of them predicated to logic or validity.
Till that radically changes, the middleman will reign supreme.