Friday, 22 February 2013

Antony wakes up too late (PO)

M D Nalapat

Friday, February 22, 2013 - During the seven years when he has been Defense Minister, A K Antony has presided over a flood of imports from foreign countries, principally Russia, the US and France. Under his watch, India has become the largest importer of defense equipment in the world, making Delhi the haunt of a collection of arms dealers who use money, wine and women to hook their customers into purchasing super-costly equipment for the Army, Navy and Air Force. Apart from the policies of the Reserve Bank of India (an agency determined to handicap Indian business from competing with foreign companies, and which permits massive speculation and money transfers from India in guises such as “royalty payments”), it is the flood of project-based imports into India that has led to a crash in the value of the Indian rupee, thereby benefitting those with secret offshore accounts, who can get more rupees for every euro or dollar earlier sent abroad through illicit channels. That there is a strong vested interest within the influential group having illegal foreign accounts to have a crashing rupee is obvious, and so long as cheats and crooks dominate the setting of policy, this state of affairs will continue

When the 1977 general elections saw the defeat of the Congress Party led by Indira Gandhi, Antony was among those who believed that the “only man in her cabinet” ( to quote satirist Aubrey Menen) was politically finished. He abandoned Indira Gandhi in 1978 but was surprised to see her return to power just two years later. By 1982 he was getting desperate, aware that he needed to return to favour with Indira Gandhi in order to survive. This columnist was instrumental in getting his wish fulfilled, by interceding with (then Congress General Secretary) Rajiv Gandhi and Rajiv’s dynamic right-hand man, Vijay Dhar, to ensure a “homecoming” for Antony in 1982. Since then, the soft-spoken Kerala politician has not looked back, being richly rewarded in the form of several ministerial and other positions by the Nehru family, including many by the latest head of the Rajiv Gandhi branch of the Nehru family, Sonia Gandhi. In turn, Antony is completely loyal to Sonia, even to the extent of avoiding contact with critics of the lady.

When this columnist’s mother Kamala Suraiya was lying in a hospital bed in Pune four years ago watching with calm the Day of Judgment approaching, she wanted to see Antony (whom she loved as a younger brother) one last time. The Defense Minister, aware that Kamala Suraiya was a critic of Sonia Gandhi, and therefore perhaps wary that Sonia may look askance on a high-profile visit to the dying poetess on her sickbed, stayed away, not even enquiring about her health at the hospital. Such devotion and loyalty to Sonia Gandhi has served Antony well, although he has done nothing to prevent high-cost acquisitions that have more than a whiff of scandal about their purchase, while keeping the Indian private sector out of defense production

The beginnings of massive corruption in government procurement dates back to 1998,when the genial A B Vajpayee (a friend and admirer of Sonia Gandhi) became PM. In the Agusta Westland helicopter deal, the way for the expensive rotary machine to get inducted into the VVIP fleet of a country where 300 million people go hungry to bed each night, it was Vajpayee’s right-hand man, whose influence came from the trust placed in him by the PM’s “foster” son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya, who tweaked specifications to allow Westland to compete. The operational ceiling for the helicopter was reduced from 18,000 feet to 15,000 feet. What Mishra ignored was that India was already producing a helicopter that had a ceiling of 20,000 feet, the Dhruva Advanced Light Helicopter. This indigenous machine was ignored by both the Vajpayee as well as the Manmohan Singh governments in view of the obvious benefits of sourcing equipment from foreign suppliers rather than from a state-owned enterprise. If the field of defense production had been opened to the Indian private sector in 2006 when Antony was given charge of the Defense portfolio, and if the money spent on foreign equipment was diverted to indigenous items, by now India would have had a flourishing defense industry of its own, as China does. Instead, the country is almost totally dependent on foreign suppliers for equipment and spare parts

The Dhruva is not the only indigenously manufactured item of equipment that has been cast aside by politicians and officials hungry for the benefits of overseas purchases. The INSAS rifle was manufactured after years of effort, but once inducted into service, no further improvements were made, and the rifle is being replaced with foreign substitutes rather than getting upgraded. Apart from the Vijayanta tank, which again was quickly dumped soon after development, an excellent aircraft, the HF-24,was locally manufactured more than two decades ago, again to be dumped in the wastebasket in favour of foreign acquistions. The record will show that India has paid as much for items such as Jaguar or Mirage aircraft as the Gulf countries have, and much more than when the same machines have been supplied to countries where graft is not a way of life. Both Francois Hollande and David Cameron have made visits to Delhi in recent days, not even bothering to disguise the fact that what they are seeking is for India to spend tens of billions of the dollars earned by its citizens working in the Gulf on equiment for the three services. Several companies in Europe and elsewhere are running because of orders from India. If Antony were to initiate an enquiry into the gamut of defense purchases by his ministry, and the way indigenous items have been cast aside because of sweeteners offered by foreign manufacturers, he would - finally - be doing the country some service

However, this is unlikely. “Saint” Antony is a prisoner of the system, which seeks more and more acquisitions from abroad at the cost of domestic capacity. In 2013,the gap between India and China in the field of defense production is immense. It need not have been so, but for greed and a refusal to permit private industry in India to enter the field of defense production. The Dhruva helicopter, the INSAS rifle, the HF-24 fighter, the Vijayanta tank and many more such items stand as mute testimony to this country’s neglect of its own sinews. Had the US the good sense to permit the sale of missiles to India, it would have been able to choke to death this country’s missile manufacturing capability in a way that all its sanctions have failed to do.

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