Going by the track record of CBI in solving defense scams, it seems that accusing is the easiest of things done; but conviction of the accused is the most difficult job to do
In what appears to be the rarest of a rare case, former Air Force Chief SP Tyagi has been arrested by the CBI for his alleged involvement in the scam of purchasing VVIP chopper deal worth Rs 3,700 crores with AgustaWestland in 2010(AW-101 deal). The CBI seems to believe that the retired Air Chief Marshal influenced the decision of procuring 12 choppers, meant for the use of top leaders of India, including the President and Prime Minister. In the process, he is believed to have received huge kickbacks along with his cousins, known middlemen in the arms-trade.
However, the former Air Chief has always denied his role to the CBI, ever since the investigating agency was entrusted the case to find out the truth by the then UPA government in 2013.
The whole episode raises two important points — the record of the CBI in presenting a strong case in matters relating to defense procurements and the very procedure of procuring defense equipments, including the role of lobbying. Let it be noted straightaway that so far the record of the CBI in uncovering the defense scandals has been really pathetic, to say the least. One does not remember a single case that the CBI has solved in this regard.
We all know how the CBI was asked by the UPA government to investigate about half a score of, what it said were, corrupt defense deals under the NDA rule of Atal Bihari Vajpayee during which George Fernades was the Defense Minister. However, nothing came out of these investigations and the same CBI requested the court to close the investigations years later, but not before ruining the reputations of many officials and reputations for no fault of theirs. One hopes, the same will not be the case with the former Air Chief Tyagi. If he is proved guilty in the final analysis, nobody will shed a tear for him, but if he has been a convenient ploy to save the real guilty in the top political and bureaucratic establishments, then nothing can be more tragic.
It is strange that a retired Air Chief can play a role in signing a deal three years after his retirement. Tyagi retired in 2007 and the deal was signed in 2010. Let it be noted here that these helicopters, though bought by the Indian Air Force (IAF), were meant for the use of the VVIPs, these were not going to be used by the Air Force as such. That being the case, it is really a riddle that the IAF was asked to buy the helicopters. Those could have been bought and maintained by the civil aviation ministry.
Be that as it may, the exercise to procure VVIP helicopters began during the Vajpayee regime. The then National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra wanted changes in the quality requirements (QRS), that, in turn, were agreed upon and signed later by the then defense minister Pranab Mukherjee (now our President). As the then Air Chief, Tyagi did not have any role in this; in fact, he did not have the authority to change the QRS. And that being the case, if at all Tyagi did play a role in the conclusion of the deal in 2010, then that must have been as a middle man after his retirement. But, was he a middleman? The inference that he was is because two of his cousin brothers are known middlemen and that the former Air Chief was seen along with his cousins in some social and family occasions.
To be seen with relatives cannot be construed as agreeing with or partnering with them. Can one be responsible for the deeds of his her own adult children? Can one be liable for what his or own brother or sister, let alone a cousin, does? In India, we have seen many political families whose members belong to different political parties. Can Rahul Gandhi be held answerable for what his first cousin Varun Gandhi says or does? Can Delhi minister Kapil Mishra be held accountable for the omissions and commissions, if any, by her mother, who is a leading BJP member and former mayor? The point we are making, we should not go hyper and kill the reputations of people just because they are accused of some wrong doings. In a country like India, accusing is the easiest of things done; but conviction of the accused is the most difficult job to do.
This brings the second point — revisiting our defense acquisition process. We must ask why is the present system is so highly prone to corruption. Is it really impractical, despite its goal being laudable? The basic point is very simple — we must have value for the money that we pay for buying right arms and ammunitions( the qualitative requirements, known as QRs) from abroad at right price (by floating tenders) and at right time( shortest possible time). And that presupposes that the QRs are formulated in such a manner that they truly reflect the country’s requirement, that there is an objective system of technical evaluation and that there are oversight agencies such as the Central Vigilance Commission(CVC), Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and Central Information Commission(CIC) to ensure the due diligence.
Theoretically speaking, we have such a system in place. Practically, however, things are not working. Our technical evaluation system takes too long a time to give the green signal. Our oversight agencies exceed their briefs more often than not by not sticking to the process and going into questioning the rationale of the very decision to procure things, a role they are not technically equipped to play. As a result, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) is in a dilemma. If it strictly plays by the way the oversight agencies look at the system, the desired result may not be obtained in time. On the other hand if it circumvents the procedure, it faces objections from the oversight agencies. And this confusion leads to unnecessary delays.
Over the last two decades, we have been witnessing more and more scams in defense procurements; it is mainly because we have made lobbying illegal.
Even otherwise, there is room for fine-tuning the system that requires clearances in every possible stage of acquisition. A study shows that from the initiation to the signing of the contract, a procurement case has to sequentially go through 7 distinct stages like “Acceptance of Necessity”, “Solicitation of Offers”, and “Trial Evaluation” etc. Each stage consists of 6 to 10 approval points with each approval point having at least 2 submission points. Therefore, any acquisition has to be processed at about 60 to 80 processing points, involving military personnel, civilian officials in the MoD, the Defense Minister, the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister. This being the case, if there is any corruption involved in the AW-101 deal, or for that matter any other deal, then the system as a whole is to blame. And when one talks of the whole system, the major responsibility for the lapses remains ultimately with the Ministers who give the final clearance.
In my considered view, when the procedure is so complicated and requires so many clearances, and all this is all in the name of transparency, the opposite just happens. Because, as we know, in any license-permit raj, corruption thrives. And this is exactly happening in the MoD.
Finally, there is the vital point of lobbying, a natural practice. In fact, if over the last two decades, we have been witnessing more and more scams in defense procurements, it is mainly because we have made lobbying illegal. In essence, a lobbyist is like a lawyer. It is a legitimate activity in established democracies such as the United States, Canada, Germany and France. In fact, by keeping lobbying illegal, we are making our decision-making process non-transparent, hence more prone to corruption. We need people from across the spectrum to present their views to the decision-makers. There will be greater transparency if the lobbyists register themselves and disclose their activities and expenditure as is the case in the US. And once these activities are transparent, we will know who are the elected officials and the administrative bureaucrats the lobbyists have met.
That way, we will be able to know better the rationale behind a particular policy-decision and be in a better position to evaluate it. Of course, Defense Minister Manohar Parrikkar has been on record to favour such a process. Sooner he implements it, better it is.