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March 15, 2001


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Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

Tehelka or tera kya?

Three things are quite clear from the Tehelka videos and the transcripts of the tapes. First, 15 years after Bofors, the arms agent and middleman is alive and well in New Delhi. He appears to be omnipresent, has easy access to the top echelons in every political party, defence ministry bureaucrats and senior decision makers in the armed forces. He spreads his largesse among all these with the ease of an expert and is able to influence file notings, file movements and indeed, crucial decisions in arms purchases.

Secondly, some elements of the armed forces are today as involved in graft and moneymaking as their erstwhile masters were a decade ago. In the various defence scams unearthed during the eighties and the nineties, few senior officers of the services had been involved. In fact the faith of the people in the integrity of servicemen had remained intact. No longer.

Tehelka has blown sky high any confidence in and cosy perceptions about the armed forces which the average citizen maintained through thick and thin. Indeed, it may only be a few black sheep who are involved. But the part played by these few will no doubt result in the entire officer corps being damned and held in contempt by the people. What is amazing and most disturbing is how some of these officials were willing to compromise the security of the nation for some petty gains such as a bottle of scotch or a dinner at the Sheraton. Are our servicemen now willing to sell their souls for such low perks?

Finally, it proves once and for all that when transparency is lacking, corruption will prevail. One reason why middlemen thrive is because of our entire culture of conducting defence procurement is behind closed doors. Even deals which look prima facie highly suspicious are never investigated or acceptable explanations offered.

Why did the defence ministry conclude a deal of Rs 6,000 crore on a nonexistent Su-30 aircraft in a matter of 15 days when it normally takes anywhere from five to even 10 years to finalise even minor deals? Why is the defence ministry ready to spend Rs 3,000 crore on refitting a 15-year-old aircraft carrier given to India as a "gift" and another Rs 4,000 crore in buying a squadron of aircraft for it which even the Russians do not fly?

The citizens of the country are treated with such arrogance and contempt by defence officials that they refuse ever to answer such questions. Nor do such questions raise a debate in Parliament. The defence ministry can no longer hide behind the Official Secrets Act. Until each and every contract, its financial outlays, the offers of the bidders and terms and conditions of the contracts are openly published, corruption will continue in the armed forces.

A number of serving and retired armed forces personnel are taking shelter behind their usual security blanket by disbelieving the whole thing. The tapes must be doctored. No serviceman will ever indulge in such things. Their faith is touching, but without any solid foundation. Undoubtedly, servicemen have so far maintained the highest standards of integrity. Indeed, the fighting spirit displayed by officers and jawans alike in Kargil would not have been possible in a dispirited and crooked service.

Unfortunately, the environment in which a serviceman finds himself today makes it extremely difficult for him to maintain his integrity and honesty. He finds himself under constant pressure from politicians, bureaucrats and middlemen, especially if he happens to be in the weapons procurement, weapons selection or even a decision making chain. That some of them finally succumb to the temptation is hardly surprising.

Are the tapes to be believed? Of course, they should be. India's armed forces will be making a big mistake if they take what has been revealed in the tapes lightly and shrug the whole thing off as an aberration. They may, with advantage, do some soul searching and bone up on the infamous Watergate affair thirty years ago.

The Watergate break-in was a comparatively minor offence as these things go. Yet the American people and their elected representatives took seriously the efforts mounted by their President and his men to cover up the affair. There was a systematic senate investigation and a grand jury hearing. A special prosecutor went into every aspect of the affair and brought about indictments. The eventual result was the conviction of every person involved, including Attorney General John Mitchell, presidential advisors Haldeman and Erlichman and many other underlings. Each was tried and served a jail sentence. President Nixon who was certain to serve a jail sentence escaped because of a presidential pardon.

Unfortunately, in the Indian case the Opposition will look upon the tapes as an ideal opportunity to score points and cause embarrassment to the government if not to bring it down. The government will try to survive by offering a few sacrificial lambs and bite the bullet to tough out the storm in Parliament.

Corruption is not the absolute preserve of a single party nor a single service. There were equal number of scams and kickbacks during the Congress regimes. It is vital that both the ruling part and the Opposition look beyond party loyalties and use this opportunity to delve deep into the affair and bring to book the guilty.

The main problem with any scam or scandal in the country is the ponderous way in which justice is meted out by our judicial system. A clever lawyer can ensure that by one way or another his client is kept out of jail. Not a single person has yet been convicted in the Bofors or the HDW deal. Harshad Mehta still drives around in his Lexus and no politician has been locked up behind bars in the numerous scams which have been unearthed.

Without fear of retribution it is well nigh impossible to halt corruption either within or without the armed force. The chiefs of the three services have an additional responsibility. If service pride and morale are to be restored they can lose no time in undertaking a thorough overhaul of their weapon and stores selection, equipment trials and procurement procedures. Nothing would be lost in making more information available and bringing in greater transparency.

In fact, the biggest mistake they can make would be to make the purchase of equipment even more secretive than before. Only the ubiquitous middleman is likely to prosper if that ensues. In fact Tehelka has done a great service to both the services and the country in exposing corruption in high places. It gives the services an opportunity to clean up the Augian stables.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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