by Aakash Brahmachari
Corruption in Indian defence deals is as old as the country itself. The only difference between 1948, when Minister of Defence VK Krishna Menon was accused of ignoring procedures for buying jeeps from a British firm, and the present, when a sleazy Italian businessman allegedly bribed a former IAF chief and senior Congress politicians to favour helicopters from an Italian manufacturer, is the sheer magnitude of the bribes involved. These facilitation payments often take the form of “consultancy fees” to shell companies established by politicians and bureaucrats. Their value, according to sources familiar with the Indian defence sector, may equal up to 10% of the deal’s worth – a quick fortune and particularly appealing for parties seeking to build a war chest to fight the next general elections.After all, those free TVs before the elections aren’t just going to pay for themselves.
Despite widely publicised scandals, the trend is unlikely to end soon and so the big question remains – why do elected representatives and government servants indulge in these corrupt practices? Apart from filling their pockets, the simple answer is that they can get away with it.
India’s anti-corruption measures in arms’ acquisition vary from competitors appealing to vigilance authorities when they suspect wrongdoing, to foreign investigative services indicting arms dealers for paying bribes to Indian nationals. In the latter case, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is invariably drawn into the fray. The CBI, despite assurances of impartiality, remains a political puppet and its conviction rate in such cases is abysmal. That is hardly surprising, considering that the politicians being investigated and at whose doorstep the money trail ends, are invariably the ones who dictate the CBI’s functioning. In the latest such instance, the “Choppergate” scandal directly indicts the upper echelons of India’s ruling party. Whether they will ever be investigated and brought to book, sadly, remains anybody’s guess.
Even a ‘clean’ Defence minister such as AK Anthony has been unable to stem the rot. His vow to investigate any and all allegations means that firms which have lost contracts now allege corruption in the hope of the contract being re-tendered so that they have a second chance at winning it. This has haemorrhaged the arms’ acquisitions process while corruption scandals continue to fester and the root cause remains unaddressed.
The key to stemming the tide of corruption lies in greater transparency. The complex bureaucratic mechanisms which dictate arms’ acquisitions allow politicians and bureaucrats in influential positions to alter the course of a deal at their convenience without accountability. Curing this malaise through investigations has failed and the only answer may be its prevention through a transparent and accountable process. To do this, the secrecy around arms’ selection should be lifted. Archaic policies which are altered every passing year need to be replaced with an open tendering and selection process which is subject to public scrutiny.
Though this is not a new idea by far, it is unlikely to occur given that doing so will dilute the influence wielded by key ministers and officials. Various excuses have been cited to preserve this opaque arrangement, including that of compromising national security. However, the underlying motive remains the same: why give up power (and easy money) when you don’t really have to?
Aakash is a risk consultant specialising in the defence sector. After completing an M.Phil. in International Relations from the University of Cambridge, he worked at the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Political Affairs Division in London and helped establish the national security desk at Gateway House, a foreign policy think tank in Mumbai. He currently works for Control Risks Group.
(Image Source: TOI)