By Bharat Karnad
In the context of huge bribes/payoffs being basic to the Indian military procurement system, whose reputation has been burnished with every big arms deal since the Jaguar deal in the late seventies—the trend-setter in this respect, the foreign vendor companies happily and eagerly make illegal payments to secure rich, perpetually paying, contracts. This system of bribery/payoffs for military buys is entrenched deeply into the system and is based on three conditions.
First, the political top order’s treatment of procurement of military hardware as a channel for making often huge amounts of money, ostensibly for the ruling party, which is actually used for enriching itself. Second, a crooked service chief inclined to make his tenure as profitable (in the filthy lucre sense) for himself as possible. Third, the chief exercising his administrative rights to post any senior officer anywhere, carefully selecting officers for certain key posts in the service hierarchy on the basis of his understanding of people who would be willing to bend to him and otherwise to facilitate the skimming off of the cream in arms deals.
The most important thing for a service chief with a mind to laying his hands on huge amount of ill-gotten funds from arms contracts in the pipeline, is to post the right sort of pliable officers as Deputy Chief (Plans) and the Assistant Chief (Plans). As a reward for being pliant, these two officers can expect to benefit from the payoffs and/or get guaranteed sought after postings post-time as Assistant Chief (Plans) and Deputy Chief (Plans).
With these two posts filled with your own men, the path is cleared for the service chief to rake in the monies.
Now consider what happened in the Agusta-Westland VVIP helicopter deal with the Italian firm Finmeccanica. Soon after the Congress Party returned to power in 2004, the grapevine was that the VVIP helicopter deal on the anvil was to be milked, that the word had come down from the political high that new regime was sticking with the Agusta-Westland rotary aircraft selection, and the IAF better get a move on with the procurement process. The political aspect was managed by “AP” in the Italian court documents, who the media has speculated is Ahmed Patel—the closest confidante of Sonia Gandhi. However, the routing had to be through the distaff side of the First Congress family with varied business interests.
The Central Bureau of Investigation was on the right track by calling in the then Deputy Chief of Air Staff (Plans) Air Marshal JS Gujral for questioning. Assuming he’s prepared to sing, there’s no better placed person to explain the problem in the Agusta-Westland deal with the then Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi who is in the saddle. Tyagi has been named, along with his first cousins from Chandigarh—longtime middlemen in import deals—the entire caboodle comprising the “Fratelli Tyagi” of the Italian indictment.
Why is ex-chief Tyagi fairly confident that Gujral will reveal nothing? This is because as the protocol among thieves goes, if you rat to the authorities, there are goods against you too that will be leaked to the same investigators. Gujral is thus stuck, even as Tyagi, who the BJP government is intent on sending to the slammer, is twisting slowly in the wind, unless SP Tyagi’s association with the Vivekananda International Foundation—NSA Ajit Doval’s baby, can save him, which isn’t likely. This is because then, the ruling party won’t be able to get to the Gandhis—Sonia, Rahul, Priyanka (and Vadra) via Ahmed Patel and his characteristic role reportedly as bagman for the family.
How did the payoffs reach SP Tyagi? Tyagi is listed as a consultant to the software development firm IDS Chandigarh owned by Tyagi cousins. What Tyagi knows about software, one cannot say for certain, except to note that he had barely to do with much advising besides identifying a laptop computer. So, the consultancy was the payoff route to the former air chief, with the Italian vendor possibly using the IDS Chandigarh as the channel, perhaps, handing over a CD with some software development information which could be passed off as part of the offsets obligation worth $10-odd million.
CBI may already be on to this SP Tyagi payoff mode.
The larger issue remains unaddressed though. It is not just the Western vendor companies that are in the business of buying into arms deals in the above fashion. The Russians have been just as active, where the IAF is concerned, starting with the Su-30MKI contract. If the BJP is serious about making the defence procurement system corruption free, it can task CBI to do time bound investigations beginning with the Su-30 deal in the 1990s and every procurement contract since then, including the MiG- 21 bis upgrade, British Hawk, the Mirage 2000, the Mirage 2000 upgrade, and now the Rafale. If the CBI digs a bit, it will find a whole slate of Chiefs of Air Staff, Deputy Chiefs of Air Staff, and Assistant Chiefs of Air Staff to hunt down. To just hang Tyagi or some other service chief would be to leave the corruption system in place intact.
MOD has to also alter the system to take the administrative power of posting away from service chiefs and to seriously vet officers shortlisted for the posts of Deputy chief (Plans) and Assistant Chief (Plans) of all the services before they are appointed. That will be the first and significant step to end the rot in the military.
Prime minister Narendra Modi and defence minister Manohar Parrikar have so far proved they are clean and above board. They can make this basic systemic change in the military service chiefs’ authority to make it impossibly difficult for the political top order in the future to initiate corrupt deals and see them through to fruition. This small change will be like taking an ax to a major source of corruption in government—the biggest, most lethal, internal security threat to the India and far more dangerous than terrorism, Naxalism, or even extremist Islam. Corruption has already eaten away at the entrails of the government, the armed services, and the nation.
Bharat Karnad is a senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and author of most recent book, ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.
Featured Image Credits: Pixabay