Some disturbing questions are raised as Westland helicopter deal hits the headlines once again.
The arrest of Giuseppe Orsi, the chief executive of Italy's largest aerospace group Finmeccanica in Italy as part of an investigation into alleged corruption in international defence deals has once again put the focus back on yet another case of corruption in India's defence procurement.
According to media reports, the arrested CEO is alleged to have paid $670 million crores) in bribes for the sale of 12 Augusta Westland helicopters to India. However, both the company and the arrested CEO have denied paying any bribes. Earlier reports had indicated the possible involvement of a Swiss-based consultant in this murky deal.
As soon as the news of the arrest hit the media circuit, Defence Minister AK Antony ordered a CBI investigation, though he had known as early as April 2012 that there were serious allegations of corruption in the procurement of these helicopters. At that time he had said he would "seriously" pursue the inquiry into the allegations of corruption in the chopper deal. "When previously the reports appeared, I had asked the Defence Secretary to immediately inquire into it. He wrote to the Indian Ambassador in Italy and he got the report," Antony said.
The issue again came up on the sidelines of the meeting of the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) in October 2012. At that time also the Ministry of Defence said it had once again taken up the matter with the Italian government to provide details of the existence of any middlemen or any individual or Indian entity in the contract for helicopters from Augusta Westland for VVIP use. The name of a serving Brigadier of Indian army also was mentioned for his suspected involvement in the deal.
Ironically, in the same meeting Antony asked the three services to adopt fair and transparent manners while carrying out procurements.
This raises some serious and uncomfortable questions:
1. Why CBI was not asked to probe the deal when the first reports of corruption came up last year?
2. Should the MoD only act when Italian government carries out the arrest and not before though it fully knew of the progress of the investigation?
3. The Minister of Defence has repeatedly assured the nation of cleaning up the process of defence procurement. But apparently allegations of corruption are surfacing in deal after deal. Is the Minister not accountable the nation for this state of affairs?
4. When General VK Singh as army chief took up the issue of corruption in defence, he became the target of organised mudslinging. What specific actions have been taken by the government since then to proceed against the culprits in already reported cases of corruption?
5. Is not the government itself accountable for serial episodes of corruption popping up every day? So how about the accountability of the Prime Minister?
Antony has assured the Westland helicopter deal would be cancelled if corruption in its procurement was proved. This is not the first time India has suspended procurement of arms and equipment for reported corruption in procurement. More than a dozen global armament manufacturers have been blacklisted for alleged corrupt practices.
This has resulted in keeping Indian armed forces perpetually short of modern weaponry. Moreover, procurement delays result not only in shortages but also in obsolescence of acquired weapons and equipment, and escalation of procurement cost. And worst of all they affect the battle readiness of armed forces.
Overall, the functioning of the Ministry of Defence has shown a consistent inability to organise an efficient, foolproof and transparent system of procurement and an effective operative procedure that would automatically take follow up action on allegations of corruption, without waiting for ministers to do so.
There is probably much more than a mere systemic problem in both written and unwritten practices of defence procurement at present. Is it not high time a probe is ordered into the whole issue of endemic corruption in defence deals? Is it only the opposition that should raise the issues? Cannot the ruling party take a proactive lead and do it if it is honest about a clean government?
Who will answer these questions?
[This is a summary of comments made by Col Hariharan on a TV channel on February 12, 2012 when the news of the arrest in Italy came in.]
Col R Hariharan is a retired MI officer and currently a strategic analyst associated with Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group