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Who is responsible for the current embarrassments facing the government?

March 28, 2012 16:03 IST
India faces a very peculiar situation where the two most honest men in the Union Cabinet are suddenly facing the charge that massive scams took place in their own departments. Is that just coincidence, asks T V R Shenoy.

There are many fine orators in Parliament; A K Antony is not one of them. Nevertheless, MPs listen carefully on those rare occasions when the defence minister speaks because the man's transparent sincerity gives weight to his words.

It will take more than a truck to make the slightest dent in the wall of his reputation for honesty, and perhaps even several thousand such vehicles cannot manage the feat.

The question, however, is whether sincerity can ever be an excuse for inactivity. That, at any rate, is what the Opposition is saying.

By Antony's own admission on the floor of Parliament, General V K Singh came to him about a year ago, with a tale of a recently retired officer offering a massive bribe. The officer, allegedly, asked the Chief of Army Staff to clear the purchase of several hundred Czech-made Tatra trucks; when General Singh refused, on the grounds that the trucks were 'sub-standard', the other officer reportedly told him that others in his seat had taken bribes and others yet to come would do so in the years to come.

The much reported incident took place well over twelve months ago, in September 2010 as best as anyone can tell.

The defence minister also accepted that he held his head in his hands in utter bewilderment when the COAS told him as much. But he then added that no enquiry had been ordered because General Singh apparently told him that he did not wish to pursue the matter, and did not mention the matter in writing.

An offer of a bribe to a sitting Chief of Army Staff is an extremely serious matter, and it was not really up to either the defence minister or his most senior army colleague to decide that the matter should rest there.

It was in Antony's power to initiate an enquiry immediately rather than wait until General Singh brought it into the public domain with a blare of trumpets.

In his impassioned statement to Parliament, Antony said that he was a minister who took cognisance of even anonymous messages. He was, perhaps, a little carried away at that point; it is the long-standing tradition in the Government of India that anonymous messages should be ignored because attending them would handicap the ordinary business of governance.

There is no point, however, in tut-tutting over might-have-beens. All the country should expect is that the defence minister starts, even at this late date, a thorough house-cleaning. The investigation must examine the very processes of procuring equipment for the armed forces.

Our corner of the world is a dangerous one, so we cannot begrudge the expense but waste and corruption are unacceptable.

I do, however, have an additional query bubbling away. Who is responsible for the current set of embarrassments for an already beleaguered government?

Yes, it is a 'set' of problems because the defence procurement scandal comes hard on the heels of the leaking of a Comptroller & Auditor General's report on the allocation of coal mine licences. Very briefly, it is, apparently, the CAG's position that certain parties, both private firms and public sector undertakings, made 'windfall gains' through winning allotments.

According to the leaked draft report the 'windfall gains' amount to Rs 10.67 lakh crore at current prices. By way of comparison, the CAG had estimated the losses in the 2G Scam at Rs. 1.76 lakh crore. In other words, the loss was over six times greater in the coal mine allocations than in the 2G Scam.

What adds piquancy to the situation is that the ministry of coal was held by the prime minister himself at the time of the allotments. And if there is anyone in this government that rivals A K Antony in personal probity then it is Dr Manmohan Singh.

India faces a very peculiar situation where the two most honest men in the Union Cabinet are suddenly facing the charge that massive scams took place in their own departments. Is that just coincidence?

That is a question to be answered another day, following a little more research. The issue of who leaked CAG's draft report is particularly intriguing.

There is no real reason for anyone from the CAG's office to leak a draft when the final report was to be released within weeks anyway. But the draft must have been doing the rounds in Delhi given that the CAG always invites comments from concerned ministries.

At this point, however, let us look a little deeper into Tatragate.

The charges of bribery are now going to play out in the courts because Lieutenant General Tejinder Singh (retd), widely reported as the 'recently retired officer' that offered the bribe to the Chief of Army Staff, has responded with a defamation case against General V K Singh.

The issue of ministerial responsibility should be tackled by Parliament. But this still leaves several questions.

First, why exactly does India continue to buy just about all the equipment for the armed services from abroad? We are not discussing nuclear technology or rocket science here, but of trucks! There is something seriously wrong if Indian industry cannot make trucks to the Indian Army's specifications.

Second, leaving aside the question of bribery, how did the defence minister and the Chief of Army Staff deal with the 'sub-standard' trucks that have already been purchased, and that are presumably still out in the field? Are they being recalled?

Has the manufacturer been forced to repair them, or to refund the money? Has there been any effort to find replacements for the Tatras?

Third, what is the role of the public sector undertaking Bharat Earth Movers Limited, BEML, in this mess? Why was BEML acting as a middleman between Tatra and the Indian Army? When the factory cost of a Tatra truck is about Rs 50 lakh, who authorised their purchase from BEML at roughly Rs 1 crore apiece?

And are the trucks made by Tata or Ashok Leyland, which are sold for about Rs 20 lakh each, incapable of being improved to meet the army's standards?

To be fair to A K Antony, my understanding is that the deal goes back long before he became the defence minister. In fact, assuming I have understood it correctly, the initial deal with Tatra was signed before the UPA came to power.

But how far back does the connection between Tatra and the Indian Army run, to the NDA regime, or even farther back?

Parliament dealt relatively kindly with A K Antony, not least because the defence minister held nothing back from his listeners. Party spokesmen, of all political stripes, almost never apologise, and beyond a point their constant evasions get on one's nerves.

It is time, and more, that defence procurement procedures become equally honest and transparent.

You can read more columns by T V R Shenoy here.

T V R Shenoy