Epiphany struck George Fernandes at 11,700 feet on the icy slopes of Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battlefield, in the eastern Karakoram range of the Himalayas.
“If there is need for prosecution, there should be prosecution… no matter who. That alone will cleanse the system. In our country, we never prosecute. We institute a case and let it die or let the man (against whom there is a case) die,” Fernandes told Shekhar Gupta in the summer of 2003, when he was defence minister and the latter editor-in-chief of The Indian Express.
Fernandes was replying to a question about how and why there still was no closure to the decades-old Bofors scandal.
That was 2003, but what Fernandes said then rings true even today. There have been many cases, including, but not limited to, the Bofors scam, the HDW submarine scam, Barak missile scam and the Tatra trucks scam, but many of the guilty are yet to be punished, either on account of insufficient evidence or lack of political will or both.
The Price Of Delay
As someone who was caught in the eye of a storm following TEHELKA’s exposé, code-named Operation West End, in 2001, Fernandes claimed in his interview to Gupta that bureaucrats would delay making purchases for the armed forces for fear of inviting an adverse reaction or being guillotined, if there was even as much as a whiff of a scam.
It didn’t matter to them that the soldiers, guarding the icy frontiers in Siachen or the searing deserts of Rajasthan, and the defence capabilities could suffer on account of the delay in procurement of, say, a snowmobile or a multirole combat jet. (Compare the reluctance of the officials to make purchases that would help a soldier with the eagerness of the Assam Rifles personnel to take money in lieu of approving a tender.)
“There is hardly any official in the ministry who would like to put his signature for anything that has to be purchased. He would like to postpone it. He would like to put it off. He would like to do whatever he has to do because he thinks that is the best way for him to survive,” Fernandes said, explaining the “psychology” of the bureaucrats in the defence ministry.
But is it not for the political leadership to give the armed forces what they need without worrying about scandals and controversies? Gupta persisted.
To which Fernandes replied: “The court is not going to listen to that, and if a political activist or minister does it, then the man who is his rival is not going to accept that. It is a terrible world.”
The UPA’s decade-long rule saw two defence ministers in Pranab Mukherjee and AK Antony; as it turned out, the latter became the longest-serving defence minister in the history of India, having held the office from 24 October 2006 to 26 May 2014. Much like Manmohan Singh, Antony has the reputation of being honest to a fault, but it is one of life’s ironies that they presided over ministries where scams took place, especially in the UPA’s second term.
With Antony at the helm, the defence ministry was witness to an unprecedented situation when the chiefs of the armed forces were allegedly involved in one unsavoury incident after another.
If Gen VK Singh dragged the government to court over his age, he also claimed to have been offered a bribe of Rs 14 crore by a retired army officer for clearing the purchase of certain trucks for the army. Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi, now retired, was accused of involvement in the purchase of VVIP helicopters, while Admiral DK Joshi decided to step down after a series of accidents aboard naval warships.
According to Admiral (retd) Raja Menon, Antony ruined India’s defence preparedness by stalling vital military acquisitions. All because he, like some of his predecessors, came to suffer from what is called the Bofors syndrome. “He was unable to take decisions. The problem was his own personality,” says Menon. The bureaucrats, taking a cue from Antony, chose not to decide one way or another. Consequently, no one spared a thought for the soldier at the frontier or cared for India’s national security imperatives.
The investigation into various scams left much to be desired, too. Similar to the officers and contractors in Operation Hilltop, the Tatra trucks case allegedly involved certain unscrupulous individuals who pocketed a certain percentage of the total cost of the purchase.
Recently, the CBI filed a closure report in this case, involving the State-owned beml (Bharat Earth Movers Limited) and Tatra Vectra Motors Limited, a joint venture between the UK-based Vectra Group and Tatra Trucks of the Czech Republic, on the grounds of “insufficient prosecutable evidence”.
Similarly, the Sukna land scam was in the news four years ago for a no-objection certificate given to a private builder for constructing an educational institution on a plot of land near the Sukna cantonment area. An Armed Forces Tribunal, which inquired into the matter, recently quashed the court martial of an officer, but the controversy refuses to die down with the Union minister of state for development of north-eastern region (independent charge), Gen VK Singh, himself a former army chief, describing the verdict as “dubious”.
In the case of the VVIP helicopter deal, too, money had changed hands. In 2013, Antony accepted as much, saying: “Yes, corruption has taken place in the helicopter deal and bribes have been taken.” Antony didn’t hazard a guess on the outcome of the various investigations that were going on except for saying that defence procurement almost always seems to be beset with controversies and that even an Integrity Pact for vendors was proving to be inadequate for checking malpractices. He wanted the Central Vigilance Commission to be roped in along with independent external monitors to plug the loopholes in procurement.
The words of Sten Lindstrom, a former head of police in Sweden who investigated the Bofors deal, should serve as a chilling reminder to one and all. In an interview to Chitra Subramaniam, which was published by the New Delhibased website The Hoot, Lindstrom said, “Many Indian institutions were tarred, innocent people were punished while the guilty got away.”
Also, in an apparent reference to the Indian authorities, he told Subramaniam, who exposed the Bofors scam: “Can you imagine a situation where no one from India met the real investigators of the gun deal? That was when we saw the extent to which everyone was compromised. Many politicians who had come to my office claiming they would move heaven and earth to get at the truth if they came to power, fell silent when they held very important positions directly linked to the deal.”
India and its soldiers deserve better.
Scam After Scam
A quick lowdown on defence scams in Independent India would take us back to 1948 when the Jeep scam took place. The focus was on VK Krishna Menon, the then Indian high commissioner in London, who finalised a deal with a foreign firm for around 1,500 jeeps without following the normal procedure. India required around 4,600 jeeps for its Kashmir operations. Nine months later, in 1949, 155 jeeps of poor quality reached Madras. The scam amount, which has not been officially revealed till date, was around Rs 80 lakh. The aftermath was ironic. In 1956, Menon was inducted into Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet.
1987 – HDW SUBMARINE SCAM
Deal In 1981, India bought four submarines from the German company HDW. In 1987, it asked for two more
How was it exposed When India asked for a discount on the fresh order of two submarines, the shipyard declined, saying it had to pay a 7 percent commission. VP Singh heard about it when he was defence minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government. In March 1990, when VP Singh was the prime minister, he ordered an investigation
Kickbacks Rs 20 crore
Aftermath The case was closed in 2005
1987 – Bofors Scam
Deal 400 155-mm field howitzer guns worth Rs 6,994 crore were bought from Swedish company Bofors
How was it exposed Swedish National Radio reported that bribes had been paid to top Indian politicians to secure the howitzer gun contract. Geneva-based journalist Chitra Subramaniam did an investigation
Kickbacks Rs 64 crore
Suspects AE Services, the shell company operated by Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, a family friend of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, who also represented the petrochemical firm Snamprogetti, suddenly intervened in the Bofors deal on 15 November 1985. At that time Bofors had existing contractual arrangements (going back several years, even decades) with two strands of companies in which arms agent Win Chadha and the Hinduja brothers — GP Hinduja and Srichand Hinduja — had interests
Aftermath Over two decades, 250 crore was spent in the investigation, but it was inconclusive. Swedish investigator Sten Lindstrom said Rajiv himself did not receive any pay-offs in the deal, but that Quattrocchi received commissions. Lindstrom also confirmed that Rajiv knew of and was complicit in the elaborate cover-up that his government orchestrated to protect Quattrocchi
2002 – Coffin Scam
Deal The Central government bought 500 coffins, each costing $2,500
Scam It turned out the real price was $172 per coffin. To make matters worse, the quality was very poor
2005 – Denel Scam
Deal Denel, a South African governmentcontrolled company, supplied antimaterial rifles to the Indian Army
How was it exposed Allegations emerged in South Africa that Denel had paid bribes to Varas Associates, the alleged intermediary, for the Indian contract
Kickbacks Rs 20 crore
Aftermath The CBI filed a closure report in September 2013. The agency claimed to have received responses of judicial requests from South Africa, the UK, Isle of Man and Switzerland, which did not show any evidence that could substantiate the allegations of corruption
2006 – Barak Missile Scam
Deal Seven Barak missile systems costing Rs 1,150 crore were bought from Israel
How was it exposed Former president APJ Abdul Kalam, who was the scientific adviser to the prime minster when the deal was being negotiated, had opposed the weapons system. The CBI registered an FIR in the case, questioning why the system was purchased even after the DRDO had raised its objections in 2006
Aftermath Former treasurer of the Samata Party RK Jain was arrested but no major breakthrough in probe till date. The CBI has closed at least one of the cases for lack of evidence
2007 – NTRO Scam
Deal Hyderabad-based National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), an intelligence agency working under the National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office, bought Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)
How was it exposed The Comptroller and Auditor General said rules were flouted in the purchase of UAVs from Israel Aerospace Industries
Kickbacks Rs 450 crore
Aftermath A letter was sent to the then National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon complaining of the irregularities in the recruitment of officers in the NTRO. It was said the probe was handed over to the man who was accused in the first place
2007 – Ration Supplies Scam
It was discovered that numbers were being fudged while supplying rations to army personnel posted in high-altitude areas. Army Service Corps chief Lt Gen SK Sahni was found guilty of corruption and dismissed from service
2007 – Frozen Meat Scam
Army Service Corps officer Lt Gen SK Dahiya was indicted in a case involving irregularities in the procurement of frozen meat for troops posted in Ladakh and discrepancies in procurement of dry rations
2008 – Abhishek Verma Scandal
Abhishek Verma, the son of former MP Srikant Verma, is in jail, and he and his wife are accused of stealing defence secrets and accepting bribes from defence firms. Investigations are continuing into the affairs of Verma, who may have also had a role in the VVIP helicopter deal. Over the past five years, Verma is said to have made a comeback to the defence consultancy business and re-established his contacts. Some highly classified defence ministry files have made their way to his firm Ganton. The secret files relate to the IAF’s acquisition plans. He has unsuccessfully tried to flaunt his proximity to several politicians from the top Congress leadership down to Jagdish Tytler
2009 – OFB Scam
Deal Former Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) chief Sudipto Ghosh and several of his associates were accused of fixing contracts
Aftermath After the CBI found evidence of bribery, the government in March 2012 blacklisted six companies for 10 years: Singapore Technologies, Israeli Military Industries, Germany’s Rheinmetall Air Defence, Russian firm Corporation Defence, Indian firms TS Kisan & Company and RK Machine Tool
2009 – Sukna Land Scam
Two senior lieutenant generals and a major general were accused of converting a 70-acre land adjacent to Sukna military station in Siliguri, West Bengal, into an educational institution by handing it over to a private trust. The controversy involved issuing of no-objection certificate for the private trust to buy the land for construction of the educational institution on the condition that wards of army personnel from the military station would get to study there. The then army chief Gen Deepak Kapoor’s military secretary Lt Gen Avadesh Prakash and the then 33 Corps commander Lt Gen PK Rath were indicted in the case. Lt Gen Rath has since been acquitted
of all charges by an Armed Forces Tribunal Bench. A court martial dismissed Lt Gen Avadesh Prakash from service after finding him guilty in the case
2010 – VVIP Chopper Scam
Deal In 2010, Anglo-Italian helicopter manufacturer AgustaWestland agreed to supply 12 VVIP choppers to the Indian Air Force for Rs 3,600 crore
How was it exposed An Italian intelligence agency started to investigate the deal on the suspicion of corruption
Kickbacks AgustaWestland paid a commission of more than Rs 350 crore to a Switzerland-based consultant
Aftermath The head of the company was arrested in Milan
2011 – Adarsh Society Scam
In 2001, land was allotted to the widows of personnel killed in the Kargil War and retired defence personnel. Over a period of 10 years, top politicians and bureaucrats bent several rules, committed various acts of commission and omission, and finally, got themselves allotted with flats at a much cheaper cost
2014 – Tatra Trucks Scam
Deal Bengaluru-based Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML) bought components from Czech company Tatra for its all-terrain vehicles, which are the backbone of the army’s artillery and transportation wings. The BEML was accused of flouting guidelines by buying components for the 6×6 and 8×8 trucks from a middleman in London
How was it exposed Army chief Gen VK Singh told the the defence minister that he was offered a bribe of Rs 14 crore
Kickbacks Rs 750 crore in bribes and commissions
HOW A DEFENCE DEAL IS SIGNED
• Contracts worth more than Rs 500 crore have to be cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security. The armed forces have financial powers of Rs 150 crore
• The military formulates a qualitative requirement of the weapon it wants
• The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), headed by the defence minister, accepts or rejects the necessity for the proposed procurement
• The DAC approval is followed by the ministry floating a global tender
• The Technical Evaluation Committee studies the technical bids and shortlists them for trial
• Field trials are carried out by the user service, which then recommends those that meet requirements
• The Technical Oversight Committee scrutinises the procedure to ensure fair trial and selection was done
• The Contract Negotiation Committee recommends conclusion of a contract at a negotiated price. The proposal is sent to the Cabinet Committee on Security, headed by the prime minister, for approval after which a contract is signed