April 26, 2001


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Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

Who will slay the defence dragon?

The Tehelka tapes was a once in a lifetime opportunity for India's defence establishment to clean up its act. It was a wonderful chance to streamline procedures, get rid of the deadwood and start with a clean slate.

In the initial days after the tapes made headlines, expectations ran high as every high ranking official promised to reform the system. This usually happens after every crisis and scandal. It happened after the Bhagwat affair. George Fernandes promised to restructure the defence ministry "within a month." Nothing happened for two years. Now St George has departed, alas, without killing the defence dragon.

One looked at the political leadership for inspiration and innovation. But far from making use of the flood tide they have insisted on planting themselves firmly on the seashore Canute-like, commanding the tide to turn back. The Opposition has been a disappointment. They have wasted a month of Parliament's time scoring political points. So finally we turn to defence. Even here there is not much to write home about.

More than two months after Tehelka, nothing seems to be stirring in the defence establishment. Of course, the usual Court of Inquiry has been convened and surely in due course some officers will be court-martialled and disciplined. As was to be expected, in a typical Pavlovian reaction, service officers have been told not to get too cosy with arms dealers. But apart from these it is business as usual in the South Block.

We have also witnessed the strange spectacle of high ranking defence officers, giving press conferences and justifying past purchases. While defence ministry mandarins are very much visible when glory is being distributed, this is perhaps the first time when they have sought to take shelter, Shikhandi-like, behind the aiguilettes and medals of service officers.

We learn nothing from the lessons of history and thus are condemned to repeat our mistakes. Thus Panipat follows Panipat, Tehelka follows Bofors and Ketan Parekh follows Harshad Mehta at ten yearly intervals. We can surely look forward to our next scandal circa 2010.

And yet there was so much that the defence establishment could have done following Tehelka.

What should happen: Bring greater transparency into defence management. For years every defence minister has promised this on taking over. Yet there is no more transparency today than it was at the time of Independence. In fact things have got worse. Under the overwhelming protection of the Official Secrets Act, defence has become such an opaque subject that the average citizen knows nothing about its working.

The government cannot do a better service to both defence and the people of this country than to scrap this outdated and draconian act lock, stock and barrel. The sooner the better.

Let transparency start with the Budget. To bring greater transparency, publish in the greatest detail the annual defence budget, each service's procurement programme, a list of suppliers and the names of agents.

What will happen: If past record is anything to go by, "security" will be tightened. For a few days every file, document, note and scrap of paper will be marked "Top secret". Scores of memos and instructions will be distributed forbidding every officer to talk to retired officers, especially those in the employe of arms agents. Information will be on a "need to know" basis. After about three months things will begin to ease. After six months everyone will have forgotten Tehelka and the status quo ante will be restored, until the next scandal, that is.

What should happen: Tehelka was a good opportunity to rationalise the system of middlemen. Middlemen or agents, as they were once called are a useful necessity in everyday defence dealings. Does one buy insurance directly from LIC or a car directly from Maruti? What is so special about defence that we want to eliminate the agents?

Lobbying for his company and its products is also a part of the agent's job. Lobbying is a perfectly honorable profession. In fact, in the US there are lobbying firms who will lobby for you with Congressmen and Senators. The Indian government, which bans middlemen in India, forks out millions of dollars employing a lobbying firm in the US to put forward its points of view to the US Congress.

The government should encourage middlemen and get them all to register. They should legitimately be allowed to see defence officers dealing with equipment, weapons and their procurement. It is perfectly possible to make the whole business extremely open and honest. Restore the agent-defence officer relationship to its previous legitimacy.

What will happen: If the past is anything to go by, business in hush-hush tones and behind locked doors will continue. Middlemen will be banned from the South Block, for some time at least. No defence officer will talk about defence procurement. Influential middlemen and arms dealers will continue to meet defence officers in the men's room of DG Club or the lawns of the Rajpath. Their business will not be affected.

What should happen: As some have pointed out, the aftereffects of Bofors lasted nearly ten years. It is to be hoped that Tehelka will not affect the speedy procurement of vital defence equipment. Some of this has been pending for years and agreements were just about getting ready to be signed. The government must ensure that these are not put into cold storage again, to be resurrected after another ten years. The Advanced Jet Trainer has been pending for over twelve years. Is it not time to finalise the agreement?

What will happen: There is not much chance of that. The aftereffects of Tehelka will reverberate for at least a year during which nothing much will move in the defence ministry. All cases will be kept pending for six months or more. When all is quiet again some bold bureaucrat may decide to sign a note and start things moving again.

What should happen: This was a good time as any to restructure and revamp the defence ministry. There has been some talk of a new Board of Procurement. The restructuring, attempted at one time by George Fenanades, seems to be dead. Instead, there is an effort to coordinate service planning under a CDS.

Until the basic flaws in the defence structure and organisation are eliminated, it will be difficult to bring even a modicum of efficiency into the way the nation's defence is conducted.

What will happen: Nothing much. We will have to wait for the next scandal to see any changes.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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