Wednesday 28 March 2012

CBI likely to whitewash Armsgate scam (Sunday Guardian)

By Madhav Nalapat

o the Intelligence Bureau,the Income-tax department and other agencies have information about the possible "sutradhars" behind the Armsgate controversy? And if so,will the CBI ensure that this input forms part of their investigation into the scam? The jury is still out as to whether the agency will actually investigate charges against identified lobbyists of foreign military hardware manufacturers,or do what it does best,present a whitewash by misinterpreting and fudging evidence. General V K Singh's public comment that he was offered a Rs 14 crore bribe to continue the 26-year old contract to supply Tatra vehicles to the Indian army has upset a lobby close to successive Defense Ministries that opposes his suggestion that Indian manufacturers such as Ashok Leyland and Tata ought to be given a fair chance to win military contracts.These have historically excluded private domestic companies in favour of foreign players. Several thousands of RTI queries on defense procurement have gone unanswered, on the ground of "national security",when in fact transparency is what would best promote the national interest. Even after RTI,this has been avoided by careful selection by the government of retired officials to man RTI panels,and from which Civil Society has been almost entirely excluded. Ideally,non-officials ought to get the lion's share of RTI panel appointments, if retired officials are not to be allowed to judge whether the activities of former colleagues ought to see the light of day or remain in the darkness.
Had the CBI been a credible investigative agency,it would have opened a suo moto enquiry into the many requests for information on defense procurement that have either been rejected or not considered,and just whom such rejections and delays are benefitting.The entire field of defense procurement needs to be made transparent,if the country is to reverse graft in such purchases. Of course,those seeking to do that will face opposition,including in the form of vexatious and motivated litigation by interested parties,all of whom are expert at this form of deterrence.
Defense Minister Antony's faith in the CBI may,however,be misplaced. The way in which the agency connived to enable Ottavio Quatrocchi to escape justice in both Malaysia and Argentibna is well known,as is the fact that those directly responsible for this double fiasco have had rewarding rather than blighted careers subsequently. Under the circumstances,can the agency be expected to do an honest job of investigating the charges made by the Chief of Army Staff ? Although concerned agencies are themselves silent on this,there is credible information that the Intelligence Bureau,the Income-tax department and other agencies have data on the contacts and comforts of key players in this drama. However,should the CBI seek to protect rather than bring to book well-connected arms lobbyists,the agency is unlikely to ask such agencies for such input on individuals known to be active in facilitating defense purchases. Indeed,within such agencies ,there are individuals sympathetic to arms lobbyists,and who have in the past tipped them off of surveillance,advising them to be careful in their conversations and meetings. These hidden associates of arms lobbyists can be expected to destroy or conceal information about their friends in the industry, something that will be convenient for pliable CBI investigators,aware as they are of the high-level connections of several of those involved in suspicious contracts since the 1999 Kargil conflict. According to information available to military sources,several retired highest-ranking officers and their immediate families enjoy ifestyles out of all proportion to their pensions,while none of these worthies has thus far faced any pressure from agencies that are supposed to monitor graft and misfeasance.
Defense Minister Antony needs to check with not only the CBI but the Intelligence Bureau,the Income-tax department,the Enforcement Directorate and state agencies to cull out the complete facts on cliques of lobbyists who have been cheating the taxpayer and placing national security at risk by forcing through purchases of substandard equipment at inflated prices. A check on prices paid by Indian agencies and those of other foreign buyers would show the extent of the scam,except of course that locations such as in West Asia or Africa may purchase equipment at prices comparable to that paid by India,and for the same reason. What needs to be checked are prices paid by European buyers of such equipment,given the higher ethical standards of public procurement in that continent. Technical experts independent of procurement networks would be able to easily assess the exorbitant extra charges that have been levied in the guise of "improvements" that add little of value to the systems involved.
As for Lt-General Tejinder Singh,who is repeatedly finding mention in the media because of the allegations made by General V K Singh, the retired army officer has his work cut out for him if he is to dispel talk from North and South Block that link him to Union Home Minister P Chidambaram and to the latter's son,Karthik. North and South Block are buzzing with reports that Chidambaram tried to make Tejinder Singh the chief of the NTRO,in the process reportedly holding up the appointment for months.It is therefore hoped that the former army officer will clear his name by showing that he has no links with Chidambaram or his son,nor indeed with others with whom he has been linked by rumour and innuendo,namely a Major Hooda and his son,as well as a former DRDO employee who has gone around media outlets planting derogatory stories about the NTRO.
Lt-General Tejinder Singh may be victim rather than perpetrator,but for this to become clear,he needs to prove the falsity of allegations linking him to the Home Minister and to others considered close to Karthik Chidambaram,a personable young man who has scored a Double Century by being a success in both politics and business. Those who admire the Home Minister say that it is nonsense to allege that he or his son would descend to the murky world of defense contracts.The same sources also have a good word to say about Lt-General Tejinder Singh,whom they claim is an honest and capable former officer not guilty of General V K Singh'a allegations. The CBI can determine the truth behind the swirl of charge and counter-charge ,if the agency acts as the independent entity that professionalism mandates it to be. However,given the outcry within the political class of leaked details of military unpreparedness (despite huge foreign exchange outlays), this may be an optimistic scenario.Instead of welcoming facts coming to light,even Opposition parties are foaming at the leak rather than at those responsible for the sorry state of affairs in matters of defense.

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