Friday, March 30, 2012
The Defenceless Minister
I have been an admirer of Mr. AK Antony, the politician because he was never known to be corrupt. His modest house in Thiruvananthapuram was within fifty meters of my office and I have seen him getting into his Ambassador car in the mornings. He is known to live a simple life. But as a Chief Minister of Kerala he was a disaster, not for his acts of commission, but for those of omission. A senior journalist told me once that the man would do or desist from doing anything, just to be in the good books of his party’s ruthless rival, the CP (I) M! Well, that is what I saw him doing all the time! The one good thing he did in his last tenure as the Chief Minister of Kerala was banning Arrack, which lost his party the election. Poor Antony thought the women in Kerala, suffering enormously on account of their men folk drinking themselves to penury. They probably thought the blighters are better drunk than sober and threw Antony’s party out with a thumping negative vote.
Politicians are generally known to be thick-skinned; but Mr.Antony is an exception and has a reputation for resigning at the drop of a hat. If ever there is a scope for someone to point a finger at him, he resigns. Thick-skinned politicians belonging to his own party and the opposition blame him for trying to get an image of wounded innocence. They laugh at him as St. Antony.
The earlier occasion he was at the Centre as a Cabinet Minister was during the PV Narasinha Rao regime which set up a paradigm of mismanagement by giving the country the Security Scam, the Urea Scam, the Sugar scandal, and the telecom scandal. As Minister for Civil Supplies, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution for a year in 1994 Antony resigned on moral grounds when his ministry was involved in a sugar import scandal, despite there being no allegations against him.
I had great hopes for AK Antony, India’s Defence Minister but some of his utterances have been baffling me just as it had many other admirers and independent observers. Once he said that India’s major security threat was internal. But he refused to entertain request for deployment of Army from Chief Ministers troubled by Maoist/Naxalite menace. He said Army was “a weapon of last resort”. It sounded more like the police asking for some serious crime to take place to make their entry.
There have been unpleasant reports on the snail pace at which the Defence Ministry was working in modernisation, particularly weaponisation of the armed forces, about the promotions of officers being held up, Air defence was obsolete, critical ammunition is not coming... and so on. For me it was so reassuring that our man was indeed on the job, meticulously going through the files, seeking clarifications from the babus, weighing the pros and cons of everything in detail so that tomorrow those Opposition MPs don’t rake up issues or the CAG does not pick holes in the procurement policy. Remember, a guy sitting in that during the time had some fun nitpicking the purchases during the Kargil war ignoring that Kargil weapons purchases had to cost more because the previous regime being less diligent on military procurement. As a wit pointed out, the CAG ignored that raincoats and umbrellas cost more in rainy season.
But all of a sudden Antony appears to be on the weakest wicket he had ever played in his career even as the powerful Minister of Defence. Because it is none other than the Chief of Staff of the second largest Army in the world, who has put him in great embarrassment. The Army Chief, General VK Singh has revealed that a former colleague walked into his room ione day and offered him a bribe of Rs.14 crores for favouring the purchase of some 600 trucks in a circuitous deal involving a foreign manufacturer, a foreign trading company and an Indian ‘Defence PSU’. General Singh also claimed that he had informed his Minister more than a year ago. Antony must be feeling so unhappy that he had let go of the General a few weeks back though the babus in the Defence Ministry were urging him to go for the kill. The old man in uniform was coming to do punkha with civilians at the helm? Antony was nice though he did not oblige the General in his last ditch battle for the ultimate honour, a corrected DoB. It may be the General is just taking his last opportunity to inform the Prime Minister what ails the 1.13 million fighting forces under his control; or he is simply knifing the system that denied him the honour he deserved.
Not that I am entirely on the side of the former Army Chief’s current disclosure that a retired Army Officer, (Lt Gen Tejender Singh?) had offered him a bribe of Rs14 crore for swinging a deal for purchase of trucks. What baffles me is that a former CM and a Senior Member of the Union Cabinet casually making a suo motu statement in the Upper House told MPs that the incident took place a year back and remembering to ask the General to take action after being suitably shocked as all politicians do. Then comes the worst part of his statement: the General told him that he did not want to pursue it, for reasons the honourable minister did not know why! He adds, “I didn't get a complaint from the Army chief in writing” And now that it has come out in the open, the man who could never tolerate corruption promises action against anybody however powerful he may be who is found guilty. That is magnanimous indeed. The minister did not stop that. He, as a Catholic would like to confess and told the Members of Parliament: “I acted on my judgement. If I am wrong, you may punish me. I think I have done my best." How nice!
So a complaint in writing is not required now that the whole world knows? He read about the allegations in a newspaper and immediately told the Defence Secretary to take action. The Minister, as he tied himself into knots, still maintains he always needed a complaint, even an anonymous one, if received in writing in which case his style is not to ignore it. So shall we take it as the former Army Chief forced the minister’s hands now? Those who blame the former army chief for publicly airing delicate issues related to defence procurement should wonder whether the minister’s notorious inaction and "inadequate response" from Antony had necessitated such "public airing"
And what did the honourable Minister for Defence do now, he ordered a CBI Inquiry. Couldn’t he have done an enquiry by a sitting HC Judge with in camera proceedings?
A former Army Officer and also a former Defence Minister, BJP leader Jaswant Singh said not very kindly though, “I have known the Defence Minister longer than I have known the Army Chief. AK Antony specialises in the art of indecision.... His style of functioning is one of silence, inaction and indecisiveness. The consequences of this will have to be borne by the armed forced.... The Ministry of Defence cannot function like this."
Opposition members including Arun Jaitley insisted that defence preparedness in the country should not suffer due to "over-obsession" with probity knowing that AK Antony would now sit on the files longer in order to avoid controversies. (“My problem is that I cannot ignore any complaint. That is why it delays procurement”) That is to suggest that his concern for being seen correct is getting to be morbid burden on his mind?
Grumpy people work better, says a study reported in Scientific American. They give close attention to details and show less gullibility to their tasks becoming less prone to errors in judgement.Mr. Antony is grumpy alright, and hard-working too. Antony’s statement that his leadership wanted him in the job as the Defence Ministry was "tough" and "controversial" is not really very helpful. We had at this stage no thoughts to the contrary, you see...
The truck business is worth a little probing in this context. It was not General Singh that named the retired army officer who allegedly approached him, but the Army Headquaters that alleged recently that former Director General of Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), Lt Gen (retd) Tejinder Singh, had lobbied for Tatra, which is the original equipment manufacturer of the trucks, and Vectra, that holds a stake in the company. The Mumbai newspaper DNA had done a series of investigations in July 2011 highlighting that Tatra trucks were sold to the army at an inflated price. For over a decade, Tatra trucks were bought from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) via a London-based firm. Bharat Earth Movers Ltd (BEML), a defence public sector undertaking, used to import the trucks and sell to the army. While the truck may have unique features that the army insisted on and the local truck manufacturers could not produce, the BEML being used as an intermediary is strange because it had no connections with the original manufacturer.
Perhaps it is to claim as is done that a Central PSU is selling to the army and they have no need to bribe anybody! To see that there was something murky about these transaction one has to know that the BEML had in 1987 signed an agreement with Omnipol Foreign Trade Corporation, (then part of the erstwhile Czechoslovakia) under which Omnipol, was to furnish all assembly and production drawings of Tatra to BEML for Rs.3 crore by March 1997. But 25 years later, BEML is still importing the trucks through a third party - Tatra Sipox (UK) Ltd - when there is a strict stipulation in the defence procurement guidelines that all purchases should be made from the original equipment manufacturer. The DNA reports sources in CBI telling them that its Defence Ministry brief is to look into the “claims” made by Gen Singh in the interview. This is a territory we travel all the time. Apart from the circuitous and illegitimate route of procurement, there is serious problem highlighted by Gen.VK Singh - that these imported trucks lacked basic service/ maintenance backup, leading to immense problems for the army and jeopardising its operational capabilities. If it is true that the General stopped the procurement of Tatra trucks soon after the offer of bribe was made to him, he has his loyalty in the right place. Now, even if he was trying to screw somebody in retaliation for the ignominy suffered on account of his date of birth issue, I would back him. That does not take away the culpability of the crime of corruption in defence procurements.
I need not remind those who are familiar with the Bofors scam that at the time of the revelation of kick-backs, there were defence-analysts crying hoarse about the damage the scam would do to the defence-preparedness of the country, how it would harm the morale of our fighting force, and of course, how good the Bofors Howitzer were. While there were some murmurs about the French Sofma guns being superior (Army Chief Gen.K. Sundarji favoured the Sofma because in field trials showed its range as 29.2 km against 21.5 for Bofors!), the whole scandal was about some fixer in Delhi snatching the order within a short time, huge amounts of money going into the Swiss bank accounts of some well-known lobbyists with connections in high places. The news of the kick-backs was leaked by Swedish Radio which had no political connections with India. More importantly, one man who had those millions of Kroners deposited into hsi account was a family friend of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, an Italian by name Ottavio Quattrocci. Mr.Quattrocci was a full-time employee of an Italian firm, Snamprgetti and had earned quite a reputation in Indian capital for securing government power and fertilizer projects one after the other, beating competition from better qualified contenders. And his employer had released huge advertisement in Indian newspapers when the controversy was raging that they were not in any way connected to Bofors! So the defence deal was obviously Quattrocci’s part-time activity!
Congress Party to this day swears by the greatness of Bofors gun. One remembers that during the Kargil war, the Party reluctantly agreed that we won, but only because of the Bofors guns! I was reminded of the Bofors story when I read in newspapers the day the story of the scam broke out details similar to the ones about Bofors guns I mentioned earlier surfaced. I quote: “No trucks made in India matched Army’s General Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQRs)”. That was the reason Tetra became a monopoly. You and I know how to do it. “The ‘defence PSU’ BEML has exclusive marketing tie-p for India.” One has to be less intelligent than a 3-year old chimpanzee not to see the game. The most hilarious part of the reports is a ‘senior BEML official saying that being a Defence PSU, they didn’t pay any commission to anybody, and his CMD VRS Natarajan befuddling the issue saying he didn’t understand which trucks are being referred to! I am told that the Army has an offer from another source for similar trucks at half the price. Perhaps that was the reason for the offer of bribe to order 600 Tatra trucks in one go.
I am sure AK Antony is not the type of honest man who gives honesty the bnefit of doubt...telling himself that some less-than-honest things happened under his nose quite inadvertently and unintentionally. He is not even aware perhaps that he is in charge of an immense empire that uses up consumable such as ammunition worth billions of rupees every year; tyres, spare, and so on. Every year the Army “condemns” a few thousand crores worth motor vehicles. I was told by a guy in Delhi who made his huge wealth buying army-surplus vehicles, spares etc. He invited me home for drinks with a Lieutenant General of Indian army among other top brass with whom he had a symbiotic relationship. I said I didn’t drink. You want a new jeep, sir, I will get you as “condemned” from the Army. Well, AK Antony knows not how the system works. The army identifies armoured vehicles, all-terrain trucks, weapons and ammunition, and various consumables from all over the world. Approves them for procurement; and sometimes indigenous ‘Defence PSUs’ are the conduits for the purchase. I am told that the fast-track route of Ministry of Defence procurement takes over a yearor more! So the sniper rifles meant for Special Forces are still not available a year after decision. Prices may wary after so long, sometimes the delays are programmed for such increases. A lobbyist for a new supplier may ‘arrange; a failure in one of the periodical test, in order to push his wars. The procedure starts all over again!
According to Ernst & Young, India is currently the biggest importer of arms, procuring almost 74 per cent of the country’s requirement from abroad, after the much advertised indigenisation drive of the socialist rulers. The Defence PSUs and the DRDO are just white elephants if you do a cost-benefit analysis. Then there is the issue of obsolescence of the weapons procured, being tied-up for manufacture here, and so on. Our MBTs are no match to either Pakistan’s or China’s. In Kerala, youngsters serving in the IAF and Indian Navy are more favoured as grooms by parents of girls. A similar attitude can be seen in Defence procurement. A KPMG-CII study in 2011 shows that of the $25 billion spent since 2007 IAF accounted for $17.46 billion, Indian Navy $6.16 billion, the Coast Guard $616 million and the world’s second largest Army, only $420 million. (It’s just a thought, one reason for this huge anomaly could be that it is quicker to earn those millions in commission from procurement for IAF and Navy because the items are far more expensive though small in quantity. And failures of imported stuff for them is generally very difficult to identify in combat situations). If I were the Army Chief, I would have shelled the MoD if I couldn’t organise a coup.
There were reports suggesting that in February, during a routine check by military intelligence personnel at Antony's office in South Block, "a discrepancy" was found, that AK Antony’s office was indeed bugged, and an IB probe was ordered. Mr. Antony had earlier a probe into VVIP chopper deal to find out if there was corruption in the Rs 3,500-crore... All said and done, I feel sorry that two people with such impeccable reputation like Mr. AK Antony and General VK Singh could not get along well. Probably the ‘system’ used to the corrupt ministers and Generals did not want these two working together well and for long. A former Minister of Defence who has a case against him for a huge unaccounted wealth is supporting the present Central government from outside just to see that the Central investigative agencies and Income Tax authorities do not trouble him. Poor Antony sits there with no clue of what all happen around him.
I am not worried about AK Antony being in the midst of a raging row over an attempt at corruption in a military deal. He will come out of it unscathed. But I am angered by the Minister for Defence seeking to shift the blame on Army Chief Gen VK Singh for not taking any action while admitting to having been informed by the General quite some time back. I have a lurking fear here that the General is aiming someone higher than the Minister, and the Minister cannot make sensible remarks if his tongue is tied. For once I find a sincereity gap somewhere. In the Orwellian context a Saint could be considered guilty unless proved otherwise. Saint Antony might therefore do what he had done before: resign from the job. But I would emphatically deny that there is any red in his moral balance-sheet yet. So, be to his faults a little blind; be to his virtues very kind...