The people of India have been truly shocked by the revelations of the web-journal Tehelka.com and especially by the widely telecast squalid scenes of senior BJP and allied-party politicians, bureaucrats and serving military officers accepting bribes and casually discussing how defence deals could be fixed. That most telling sequence of the former BJP President Bangaru Laxman eagerly accepting bundles of cash and thrusting them into his desk drawer has said it all and shown as hollow the BJP's claim to being a "party with a difference". The self-proclaimed champions of national security interests have been thoroughly exposed as merely a self-seeking bunch and their own Defence Minister George Fernandes as presiding over an establishment totally open to penetration by agents, middle-men and fixers.
Instead of taking any action, the BJP-led government has resorted to all sorts of tactics to malign the Tehelka team and those, especially in the Opposition, who have protested at this shocking state of affairs. While some probably unconnected junior government officials are being hounded, no action has been taken against those politicians or senior bureaucrats clearly seen taking bribes. Only the Army, acting independently and promptly, has initiated disciplinary and prosecutorial action. The only "action" taken by the BJP-led government has been to order an Inquiry headed by retired Justice Venkataswami which can and will achieve nothing. Instead of "inquiries" into what the whole world has clearly seen, what is needed is direct criminal investigations and prosecution.
There has been little discussion either about the major defence deals mentioned in the Tehelka tapes or the many important wider issues arising in relation to corruption in defence procurement. The CPI(M) has brought out this Booklet precisely for this purpose so that the public may appreciate the issues involved and be better placed to form an informed opinion about steps required in future to cleanse the system.
This Booklet essentially contains three sections. The first deals with the Tehelka revelations themselves and their implications, the second with the major defence procurement deals recently entered and referred to in the Tehelka tapes, and the final section dealing with the wider issues involved as regards defence procurement and related corruption.
While different aspects of several major deals involving specific defence equipment are discussed, there is no automatic or implicit questioning of the efficacy of the equipment procured, although some actual doubts may arise in a few cases. It is well known in defence procurement deals the world over, that only in rare cases is poor quality equipment procured and bribes paid to ensure their purchase. In most cases, the equipment procured is broadly as good as its main rivals, and kickbacks are paid to smoothen the transaction, ensure a favourable final selection especially from among equivalents, and see to it that all norms and procedures appear to have been strictly followed. Indeed, this is another reason why the Venkataswami Commission will yield little result in pursuing its terms of reference to look into "whether due procedures have been followed" in the various deals mentioned. Pushing up the final price is also a substantial incentive for kickbacks as it enables a higher share for all concerned. But in most cases, the quality of the goods need not be the major concern. The Bofors deal clearly brings this out.
In discussing the major defence deals and the equipment procured, focus in this Booklet has been on the nature and details of the deals, the various considerations and options involved, and on implications of the acquisition for India's defence preparedness especially with reference of self-reliance in this critical area of national security. This section also aims at atleast partially lifting the unnecessary veil of secrecy surrounding defence matters and bring about greater transparency and accountability in this regard as also discussed in detail in the Booklet.
Various wider issues are also involved when discussing defence procurement and corruption involved in connection with it. Many commentators have rightly pointed out that it is necessary to go beyond the immediate acts of wrong-doing so that the systemic problems in defence procurement, which could be seen as breeding grounds for the rampant corruption so dramatically revealed in the Tehelka tapes, may be tackled. This booklet in fact does precisely this in Section-III.
For instance, the much-promised comprehensive strategic defence review has not taken place leading to ad hoc defence procurement whose usefulness or otherwise for long-term security interests is thus open to question. Defence procurement procedures in India are beset with myriad problems including over-complicated and non-transparent procedures and a major overhaul is clearly indicated. Defence research and indigenous defence production have exhibited major if not structural weaknesses and failure to deliver on major projects which, as shown repeatedly in the Booklet, has time and again led to massive imports and perpetuation of dependence on foreign suppliers even in this key area of national security. The structure of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), especially the relationship between the military and the civilian bureaucracy, is a key factor in defence planning and overseeing of implementation, including procurement, and here too the long-awaited restructuring of the MoD is of immense significance. On all these counts, the BJP-led government has failed miserably. Accountability of the MoD and the military establishment, especially as regards defence procurement, is a major vexing issue. Even Parliament is rarely if ever taken into confidence, leading to the gross anomaly where even middle-ranking military officers or MoD bureaucrats are privy to information which is denied to Members of Parliament on grounds of national security. As the tehelka tapes bring out, all manner of touts and fixers have access to information denied to the peoples representatives. This is surely a perversion of democracy where the elected legislature comprising the peoples representatives should be supreme.
While all these issues have been raised and placed before the nation for wider debate, it must be emphasized that such system-level appraisals and exercises should not be allowed to cloud over the immediate and visible deeds of corruption and betrayal of national interests revealed by the Tehelka exposé. The BJP and their key Samata Party allies are striving their utmost to divert attention away from their own misdeeds by doing just that and Bangaru Laxman and others have even started talking of electoral reform!
Indeed, the nation should not let another opportunity go without tackling these system-level issues, and the CPI(M) is taking the lead in initiating this debate through this small Booklet.. Yet, in the interests of pursuing these long-term goals, the immediate issue of the clearly documented and publicly witnessed acts of corruption and betrayal of national interests should not be allowed to be pushed under the carpet. On the contrary, it is through vigorously pursuing and prosecuting these cases arising directly out of the Tehelka exposé that the wider issues can be properly addressed.