Am I as arrogant as you must have read about?"
asks dismissed naval chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat
after a long interview.
Bhagwat these days is more concerned about the
development programmes he is involved in at Jamkhed,
Maharashtra. Empowerment of women and education for villagers has
infused him with a new sense of energy and purpose. He took time out to
talk to Ramesh Menon about defence
deals, George Fernandes and the PMO's alleged involvement in a scandal
that is now rocking the nation.
Were you surprised when the defence scandal broke out?
Not at all.
It confirmed what I was saying all along. It was not just me. All
knew what was happening in the defence ministry. It was all about
institutionalising corruption and co-opting the armed services into the
What did you feel when you saw the Tehelka tapes on
It was a job well done and presented in such a way that people
would believe what they saw.
Many have said they were not surprised at what they
Many of us are escaping the real issue by saying the problem
always existed. The real point is this: Look at the pace, the
intensity, the spread, the magnitude, the momentum and the volume of
the goings on in the arms deals in the defence ministry today. The
magnitude is more than the past.
Arms dealers have become bolder and
bolder. It is not a question of money changing hands but of the
subversion of armed personnel. And their positioning in crucial posts.
And the promotion of all those who are involved.
That really sounds terrible.
On December 10, 1998, I told the home minister that intelligence
agencies were riding on the back of arms dealers. They
were in key positions in the general staff. And later they would also
be in field positions. History shows the havoc they have caused.
not a laughing matter. It is not just a Blue Label involved or a dinner
in a five-star hotel. If it was just that, no one would have bothered.
It is much more.
How does one put a cap on all this?
In the United States, there are very strict rules for the armed forces
even on going for training abroad or entertaining. They do not
deviate from the guidelines at all. When an appointment is up, the
entire background for the last 20 to 30 years is studied. Only the most
outstanding candidate gets the post. Even a minor dismeanour is a very
serious matter. In my successor's case, not a single paper was seen
before making him the chief.
Really, how serious is this? The question of corruption,
middlemen, commissions et al.
The Tehelka tapes are only the tip of the iceberg. These
did not have the resources to reach the top. Otherwise, gross
violations that this government is involved with would have come out.
George Fernandes said after the tapes were out that rules were followed
all the time. You see, you can have the best set of rules but if the
integrity of the people manning the system is suspect, it cannot
How far is George Fernandes responsible for the state of
Corrupt people were co-opted into the sleaze by the defence minister
himself. The message was 'fall in line with us.' With the
professional officers suffered. There are so many examples of how
numerous good honest officers have paid a price. It is like saying come
join us, we will make a deal.
The government wants to convert the armed
forces just as they have converted the IPS and IAS, transferring them
every few months and making them into mere rubber stamps. They are
trying to subvert the armed forces.
What are the kind of pressures you faced as navy
I am the kind who was not amenable to any kind of pressure. I was a
professional chief who had the time only for genuine indigenisation,
long time force structure plan, strategic defence review and energy
security. Any chief with a backbone can do wonders. There were many who
were bold and courageous before.
What did Fernandes have against you? What interests did you
I would not agree to corrupt officers being appointed. I would not
agree to wholesale imports. Or imports of completely knocked down and
semi-knocked down equipment. They were getting these in the name of
indigenisation. How is it indigenous when we are just putting together
Fernandes did not like my insistence on building our own equipment and
our own production capabilities. I wanted to get India build
its own defence systems. Most naval shipyards in India have only a 50
per cent utilisation. We could make use of it. If India builds its own
submarines, it will provide employment, allow ancillary units to
flourish, encourage local industry and research and development.
In China, the army dominated leadership decided way back in 1978 that
shipbuilding would be a springboard for industrial development. Today,
China is a strong maritime nation. And India has shrunk as a maritime
nation. As a peninsular nation, it is so crucial to have a good
We were talking of why Mr Fernandes was upset with
Fernandes was upset as I stopped the smuggling of arms through the sea
routes. Arms were coming in from Thailand
for Burmese insurgents. If it enters Burma, it could also go into the
northeast and be used against Indian armed forces fighting an
there. A consignment of arms caught at Port Blair was even shown to
him. He just kept absolutely silent.
Was the consignment huge?
It had enough arms to tie down an entire division of the Indian
army for one year.
What happened then?
All the three chiefs said nothing doing, but the shipments
continued. Mr Fernandes wanted it to happen that way. Fernandes had a
close link with insurgents. Earlier, the navy had always ensured that
such shipments were stopped. We had done that with the LTTE, for
What kind of role do arms dealers play?
They influence appointments. They bribe and corrupt the system.
They become facilitators of intelligence agencies and their operation
When Mr Fernandes was asked on television why he sacked
he said you should not have been navy chief even for a
Of course, I should not have been navy chief even for a day. Then,
it would have been easier for him to subvert the armed forces. People
like me can stop him. History will prove whether he was right or I was
right. History has already caught up with him.
Does the PMO play a role in arms deals?
Without doubt, yes. The PMO is involved in postings, transfers,
promotions. Many excellent officers have suffered because of this. We
have lost some of the best logisticians like this. Both (National
Security Adviser)Brajesh Mishra
and (the prime minister's son-in-law)Ranjan Bhattacharya are
Nothing that goes on in the defence ministry happens without the PMO
knowing. There are intimate relations between the PMO and defence
bureaucracy, between the PM and the defence minister. This needs no
Let us talk about the Barak deal. Were you against it?
A professional is not for or against a deal. Building up an
offensive capacity is our primary duty. We had a limited budget. The
naval doctrine is to hit first and destroy enemy capability and
neutralise them at a far enough distance. Any last ditch defence system
does not fit in. I and Dr Abdul Kalam, scientific advisor to the PM,
discussed it in great detail. A refit of the Virat would have
around Rs 350 crore. So I said one system of Barak was okay. But
George Fernandes wanted a suitable recommendation from the naval
headquarters for his approval. He then waited to reverse my decision.
What about the T-90 tank deal?
The T-90 deal was mooted earlier, but was pushed after Pokhran and
Kargil. This was triggered by the import of rusting T-80 Ukraine junk
tanks to Pakistan. Why should we buy junk if Pakistan is buying it?
Just see what the Americans do. They keep upgrading their equipment
all the time. We should do the same. Not just keep shopping all the
time. The T-90 deal was not vital to India's interest.
We must remember that without an indigenous capability, we cannot have
an independent foreign policy. With the secession of the Soviet Union,
we have fallen into the hands of arms dealers.
Let us talk about the Sukhoi deal.
I am extremely concerned by the statement of Mr Fernandes that
getting the Sukhoi is a step towards indigenisation. The import of
semi knocked down equipment is a regressive step and throws mud in the
eyes of the people and the Indian Parliament.
In 1996, on the last day of the 13-day Vajpayee government just before
the voting hour was approaching, an emergency meeting of the Cabinet
put a seal on the Sukhoi deal. At that time, the honourable defence
minister was Pramod Mahajan. Let your readers decide.
By the way, the performance guarantee papers of the Sukhoi is still not
with the government today.
India now wants to get the aging Russian aircraft carrier, the
Gorshkov. What do you think?
The Gorshkov was offered to the Indian Navy in 1992-93. But
priority was to construct an indigenous one instead at the Cochin
shipyard. This was to be a tactical aircraft carrier and funds for it
was approved in 1997. The Gorshkov had been professionally
three different delegations of the Indian Navy from 1995 to 1998. The
last evaluation was that the baseline negotiating figure should be
around $ 400 million. But with pressure from arms dealers, it went up
to $ 700 million.
Is it worth it?
The ship is nearly 50 years old and it will take three years to
complete. The question here is do we want to invest in strategic
capabilities or do we want conventional capabilities. In any case,
will serve us for seven to ten years.
What about the Mirage deal?
The acquisition of 10 old mirages which was offered to India in 1992
was initially meant for the Jordanian Air Force but since they did not
buy it, it was offered to India. The defence ministry did not respond
at that time. Today, we are going to pay double the price for it.
Would you say that Mr Fernandes was
involved in arms deals?
If he is not involved, he is
accountable. The minister has the powers to approve up to Rs 50
crores or so. A deal can easily be split into various parts to avoid it
from going to the Cabinet for approval. Tricks of the trade are common
and well known to civil servants.
What is the way out?
It takes only one rotten apple to ruin the rest. It is easier to
destroy than create. There is a saying in the army that if you have
three bad commanding officers, you can write off the battalion.
It is possible to set it right. The US army was down and out after
the Vietnam war. Drugs and corruption was rampant. But the army had
outstanding chiefs who pulled them out of the crisis to become a
professional armed force. Today, the United States army is a model for
armed forces all over the world. It is not only because of
modernisation, but because of professionalism.
Is there some solution to clean up the mess?
A massive clean up operation is needed. We need three defence
chiefs who are totally dedicated to the ideals of the armed forces.
They should not be yes men. We need chiefs with a backbone doing their
job without allowing political interference. It will take long
sustained efforts. It is not going to be easy to dislodge the system.
It will need many reputed army, navy and air force chiefs to clean it
up. They should be able to say No, Mr President and No, Mr Prime
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