THERE is an anecdote about the last days of Sardar
Vallabhbahi Patel. About a week before his death in 1950, he called in his
daughter Mani-Behn Patel, gave her an envelope containing Rs 30,000 and
asked her to send it to the treasurer of the Congress Party, S.K. Paul.
The money had been given to him for some party work which he could not do.
He asked her to get a receipt for the money. Contrast this with what
I had the dubious privilege of viewing the Tehelka
tapes on March 13. Dubious because in my 36 years of government service, I
have never come across such a stark depiction of corruption affecting a
vital aspect of our process of governance, the management of defence
purchases. The two investigative journalists pretending to be
representatives of a spurious arms supplying firm 'West End International'
met 27 interlocutors, amongst whom were seven serving army officers, out
of whom three were Major Generals, two Brigadiers, and two Lt. Colonels.
They also dealt with two retired Major Generals and two Lt. Colonels and a
Major who were active as middlemen in defence purchase operations, apart
from senior political leaders and bureaucrats. The visuals and
conversations in the documentary film lead one to the following
Taking commissions or bribes is a widespread and
normal practice in the conduct of defence purchases. The video clearly
showed people accepting money from these spurious businessmen. Serving
officers had no inhibitions in revealing confidential information to the
potential suppliers and assuring them that rules can be bent in their
favour if sufficient financial incentive was forthcoming. There were also
indications that quality control stipulations can be overlooked in return
for such financial incentives (leaving apart he setting aside of
procedures). The middlemen, particularly the political types and
businessmen, claimed with out any trace of reticence that senior
politicians and even civil servants like Principal Secretary Brajesh
Mishra and Defence Secretary YogeshNarain were parties to this corruption.
These persons also claimed that Vajpayee's foster son-in-law Ranjan
Bhattacharya is also involved in such practices. The retired and serving
military officers asserted that they could influence Lt. General Dhillon,
Master General of Ordnance and Lt. General Shankar Prasad, Director
General Infantry, to favour West End in return for monetary incentives.
The so-called trustee of the RSS, Raj Kumar Gupta,
claimed that he could even influence the PM. Serving military officers
were contemptuously abusive of Defence Minister George Fernandes, claiming
that he is a direct party to these corrupt practices. The Director
General, Ordnance and Supplies, Major General Manjit Singh Ahluwalia,
repeatedly told the journalists that their company must have very deep
pockets', stating that talking in terms of thousands of rupees is not
enough, it has to be in lakhs and crores.
The nexus between serving and retired army officers, between them,
private middlemen, civil servants and politicians has been clearly brought
out in the film. Quantitative requirements, stipulations regarding quality
and procedures are all subject to violations on the basis of established
network of corruption. It was nauseating comedy to see Bangaru Laxman
accepting currency notes of one lakh "only for your New Year
party" as stated by 'West End International' representative, without
batting eye-lid. He asks for additional money to be paid in dollars while
his Private Secretary Satyamurthy confirms that Laxman has three or four
foreign bank accounts. One had come across speculative reports about such
corruption. This is the first time that visual and voice documentary
depiction of such corruption has been made public.
Whether the film is admissible as evidence in courts
is a technical question but the visuals and voices are clear. Such a film
should be very difficult to produce by doctoring or artificial methods.
Defence Minister George Fernandes and chairman of
Samata Party Jaya Jaitiy have resigned. The concerned army officers and
the junior civil servants have been suspended from service. Action against
other persons who figured in the Tehelka documentary seems to be underway.
But the basic fact is the Vajpayee government's credibility has been
decidedly dented. There is a question-mark against its stability.
Such corruption is not unique to India, but there are
restrictive arrangements to control such phenomenon in other countries. We
must learn from them. Some suggestions come to mind.
While the details and technical specifications of the
items to be purchased by our defence forces should remain confidential,
there is no reason why the general procedure governing such purchases
within India and particularly from abroad, should not be made transparent
and given general publicity. The initial indent and calling for tenders
should be the responsibility of a single agency in each branch of the
armed forces with the technical and financial side being overseen by
designated and publicised officers in the defence ministry. Third and the
most important, the middlemen and agents who are engaged in this business
should be asked to formally register themselves with the defence ministry,
giving full details of their experience, functional background and
financial credibility. This information should be in the public domain.
This should prevent the phenomenon of subterranean clandestine influence.
Leaving aside the political uncertainties about the
stability of the government, an immense operational fallout of the Tehelka
expose is likely to be a delay in decisions about the acquisition of a
number of important weapon systems urgently needed by our armed forces.
The items involved are Smerch artillery systems, SU-30 MKI jets,
ammunition for AK-47 assault rifles, self-loading rifles, Sea Harrier
naval jets, T-90 main battle tanks and the remaining purchases of the
Barak anti-missile system.
Given the expose and allegations flying around,
officials would be apprehensive and inhibited about taking decisions on
the purchase of these items. One hopes Jaswant Singh as defence minister
would take anticipatory remedial steps in this matter. The government has
announced its decision to appoint a Supreme Court Judge to inquire into
the allegations inherent in the Tehelka documentary, stipulating that the
findings should be submitted within four months. One hopes that the
inquiry would not dissipate into ambiguous and general conclusions. Those
directly involved should be made to face the consequences of their greed
regardless of whether they are civilians, military officers or
politicians. Otherwise, the future will be bleak in terms of our national