'A K Antony's office receives something like ten letters a week, all alleging corruption. That works out to better than an allegation a day on average, holidays included.'
T V R Shenoy on Tatragate.
Picking my steps carefully through the debris of Tatragate, there seem to be a couple of areas where there is lack of informed opinion and a third where there is a lot of misinformation.
Specifically, who was in charge when the Tatra deal was struck, how did the CBI get on Ravi Rishi's track with such impressive speed, and where do matters now stand between the Union defence minister and the chief of the the army staff?
The answer to the first question is that the Tatra agreement was signed in the Rajiv Gandhi era. What is more, it might have happened at a time when the then prime minister was simultaneously holding the defence portfolio.
To go back a quarter of a century in time, V P Singh was abruptly shunted out, for whatever reason, from the finance ministry in January 1987, and thrust into the defence ministry. He lasted barely two-and-a-half months in his new post, resigning -- or being forced to resign -- in April 1987.
In a delicious irony, the reason was that he had, reportedly without keeping Rajiv Gandhi in the loop, ordered an investigation into the purchase of HDW submarines from Germany. This was resented by the Congress -- then still called the 'Congress (Indira)' -- because the investigation seemingly called Indira Gandhi to account; the agreement was signed in 1981 when the Congress matriarch ruled India.
Be that as it may, Rajiv Gandhi then took over the defence ministry temporarily. It was a masterpiece of poor timing; literally days after V P Singh's leaving, a Swedish radio station broke the news of the Bofors scandal, and Rajiv Gandhi's image never recovered.
Speaking of Bofors, during the heyday of the scandal one of the Congress's chief talking points was that Rajiv Gandhi had taken the initiative to bar middlemen from anything related to defence procurement. Remember this point, it is important.
Twenty-five years ago a defence minister known as 'Mr Clean' got into trouble for probing a deal that was struck by a previous government, one in which the prime minister was an iconic figure in the Congress. Was it Mark Twain that said, 'History does not repeat itself but it does rhyme'?
We must now come to the second issue, the alacrity with which the CBI is pursuing Tatragate.
Some reports suggest this happened because of General V K Singh's interview by The Hindu. This is wrong.
Some others say the credit should go to Dr Hanumanthappa, a Congress MP from Karnataka, who wrote to several people, intimating that something was wrong with the Tatra deal. This too is wrong.
However, we should look a little into the Hanumanthappa episode. In 2009 Dr Hanumanthappa complained about alleged misdoings in the public sector undertaking Bharat Earth Movers Ltd, BEML. It is not quite clear how Hanumanthappa got to hear, but BEML is based in Bengaluru, and Hanumanthappa himself has trade union links of old, so the workers at BEML might have let something slip.
Hanumanthappa complained that the Tatra trucks were not being purchased from the original manufacturer, but through intermediaries, who included Bharat Earth Movers Ltd and Vectra (in London). This violates the defence procurement rules quoted so often and so loudly by the Congress in the Bofors era.
I am not sure if any recipient got the message. Hanumanthappa spent several pages in general complaints before coming to the central point in, I think, the fourth paragraph of the fifth page (or something like that).
Hanumanthappa's letter reached Sonia Gandhi, who, rather peculiarly, handed it to Ghulam Nabi Azad. (The Congress's rationale is that he is the Congress functionary in charge of party affairs in Karnataka, but a defence deal is scarcely a party issue.) At any rate, in October 2009 the letter found its way into A K Antony's office.
The defence minister did not ignore the letter, and asked for the matter to be probed. But A K Antony then made a mistake, he did not pursue the matter, something that he himself would openly admit as an error. (As far as I know, Hanumanthappa has still not received a proper response!)
How do you forget allegations of a multi-crore deal? The fact is that A K Antony's office receives something like ten letters a week, all alleging corruption. That works out to better than an allegation a day on average, holidays included.
But if it was neither General V K Singh's interview nor the Hanumanthappa letter that did the trick, what stirred the CBI into action?
Very simply, the CBI, like the tax authorities, looks into matters if it receives 'credible evidence'. This was one of those cases, and behind the scenes the investigators built their case without any fuss. And on February 21, 2012, if I have the date correct, the minister gave the sanction to prosecute.
Please note the date, it was about five weeks before General V K Singh's explosive interview. Note too that the sanction was given not just to 'investigate' but to 'prosecute'.
So, why did the CBI wait to go after Ravi Rishi, the man behind Vectra?
It has been wrongly reported in the media that Ravi Rishi is an 'NRI', a 'Non-Resident Indian'. The fact is that he is not an Indian at all, but a citizen of the United Kingdom. You could describe him as a 'PIO', a 'Person of Indian Origin', but he is not an 'NRI'. And trying to extradite a British citizen from Great Britain is difficult at the best of times.
But the CBI also knew that 'Defexpo 2012' was scheduled to start on March 29. India is one of the world's largest defence equipment importers, and it was extremely unlikely that any manufacturer would refuse to visit.
Sensibly, the CBI waited a few days until Ravi Rishi was in India, and available for questioning. That is how it reacted with such speed -- because it was already on the case.
How about the news items saying that the defence minister ordered a probe only after General Singh's interview? That investigation concerns only the specific allegation of bribery brought out in the chief of the army staff's interview, the CBI was already probing Tatragate.
This brings up the last topic -- the one that seems to interest the chatterboxes in Delhi the most -- namely how A K Antony and V K Singh get along.
The defence minister and the chief of the army staff are never going to be mistaken for bosom buddies, but they both have great respect for each other. Each sincerely believes in the other man's integrity, and also that the man across the table wants to do well by India. In other words, the foundation for a healthy professional relationship has always existed -- and continues to exist.
Frankly, this third issue is, at least to me, rather a banal topic. It is, one suspects, a smokescreen to divert attention from the mechanics of the Tatra deal, particularly how and why intermediaries were used when middlemen are barred from defence procurement matters.
But 'A K Antony vs V K Singh' makes the better headline, and there shall probably be more such 'diversions' to come courtesy of 'rogue elements'!
You can read more columns by Mr T V R Shenoy here.