The mess of arms procurement

By K.N. Pandita

The big mess following army chief’s recent pronouncements is essentially the mess about procurement of arms by the defence ministry. This is an issue that surfaced with the purchase of Bofors guns from Sweden during the times of Rajiv Gandhi India is a big buyer of arms. The arms procurement budget runs into billions of dollars. In these big deals, foreign suppliers do not hesitate to press the middlemen into service as it facilitates making of the deals. Obviously, stakeholders in these enormous transactions eye enormous amounts by way of commission which the middlemen usually get out of these deals. A large number of stakeholders beginning with the highest echelons down the line to smaller functionaries are partners of involved agencies in the deals, shady or transparent whatever.   

The deals are usually scripted and signed by the Defence Minister and his secretariat. Army chief is essentially required to approve the need and quality based procurements generally established through the instrumentality of an expert committee. This is a comprehensive and, of course, time consuming exercise. It has not to be done in haste or with recklessness. Approval of weaponry depends critically on the defence needs of the country. What are our defence needs is not something which the Army chief alone cannot decide. It is a combination of political, technical, strategic and financial ingredients. The experience is that once tenders are floated for procurements that are of enormous financial magnitude, suppliers try to exert all kinds of influence on the home chapters that hold the key to the transaction. Massive lobbying begins at various levels, particularly at those of the Defence Ministry and Army Headquarters. Now keeping national interests in view, the two organizations need to come to a final conclusion based on the merits of the case. It has often been found that some of the bidders who have not succeeded to clinch the bid, later on come with a litany of complaints against the winner of the bid. The aim is to try to scuttle the arms deal even at the last moment and find space for entry into the Indian arms market. In pursuing that agenda, the failed bidders first of all begin with explaining the faults and drawback in the bargain that has been struck in order to create confusion in the mind of Indian authorities. This practice was precisely undertaken when Bofors had won the bid for supply of Bofors guns.

In a rare case of honesty and dedication to the service of the nation, the Army chief reported the case of a serious bribe offer to the defence minister in the hope that the latter would take proper action and cleanse the Defence Ministry of any stigma of harbouring corruption. This all has been done in good faith. Defence Minster’s argument that the Army chief did not send the complaint in writing is very weak. It is not a matter between two ordinary citizens. The chief of the armed staff and the defence minster are the highest authorities and a word of the army chief is more than sufficient for any follow up action. If the Army chief did not put it in writing, does it mean that in the eyes of the defence minister there was no complaint, and hence no need of taking any action on his part? Is each and every matter of national importance put in black and white and no credence is given to what transpires between the top brass and the top boss? By asking the Army chief to make the complaint in writing was tantamount to expressing trust deficit in him. The Army chief naturally must have felt deeply sad in such a situation. Let us not forget that he is the head of the family called Indian Armed Forces.  It must have been very embarrassing for him to be told to put it in writing for the Defence Minister.  It stung him hard. But he had the consolation that he did not let down his conscience, his inner voice and his sense of service to the nation. He carried himself with dignity and poise that reflected his stealing quality of being above board. And if putting it in writing was that important, why did not the defence minster ask the army chief why he did not want to pursue the case of corruption? He could and should have taken the suo moto cognizance and proceeded to call in CBI for investigation as he did now after the media played up the case. The feeling is that the Army Chief finds many skeletons in the cupboard of defence ministry, and these are likely to tumble down one after the other as CBI enquiry proceeds.

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