We have seen the dirt, now it's time to clean up Don't fast forward the tape

Indian Express 22-3-2001

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 Tehelka exposed. 

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 conclusions: 

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 security.