February 29, 2020
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Barak Bites

Fernandes' only hope: CBI muffing it up

Barak Bites
Jitender Gupta
Barak Bites
If the CBI charge of kickbacks in the Barak missile deal are true, then former defence minister George Fernandes, president of the now-defunct Samata Party, Jaya Jaitly, and ex-navy chief Sushil Kumar could be indicted for accepting commissions from the Israeli manufacturers. After countrywide raids in 35 places including arms dealer Suresh Nanda's offices in Delhi and Mumbai, the investigating agency claimed clinching evidence in its FIR last week to prove that Rs 2 crore was paid to Fernandes and associate Jaitly.

A senior CBI official told Outlook that Nanda's residence and offices uncovered "computer files, pen drives, bank statements, 15 credit cards and other documents that helped establish the money trail". The agency is also looking into two other arms deals inked by the NDA government—the anti-materiel rifles procured from South African manufacturer Denel and terminally guided ammunitions from Russian firm Krasnopol.

Sources say the money trail could be a clincher for the CBI. But their case also hinges on the DRDO's raising objections to the Rs 1,200-crore deal for seven Barak systems and 200 missiles, signed on October 23, 2000. Here they could be on tricky ground. The FIR states that the DRDO had offered up the indigenous Trishul missile in turn, which was ignored by naval HQ as well as Fernandes. Now, the Trishul was never an option. In fact, the project was scaled down and turned into a technology demonstration vehicle in '03. The then secretary, DRDO, Dr V.K. Atre, had confirmed this to Outlook: "The Trishul missile is a closed project. It's out of reckoning for induction."

The FIR also states that then CNS (read Admiral Sushil Kumar) had "colluded with other accused persons" to "misrepresent facts" and cited "DRDO's concurrence given three years earlier when the indigenous Trishul was in its initial stages of development". This isn't true, insists naval HQ. The Trishul project was launched as part of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme back in '83. So the CBI's claim of Trishul being in its "initial stages of development" in '97 is factually wrong. In '95, it was the Congress-led Narasimha Rao regime that was being convinced by a desperate naval HQ to buy the Barak.

With the Pakistani navy equipped with two potent sea-skimming missiles—the French Exocet and the US Harpoon—the Indian navy's fleet was highly vulnerable. The only missile defence systems on offer in '95 were the Barak and the Russian Kashtan. In December that year, Trishul project director A.K. Kapoor was present when the Barak was tested by the Indian navy in the Mediterranean Sea. He had given his okay then. Naval HQ rejected the Russian Kashtan as it was incapable of intercepting sea-skimming missiles. At a high-level meeting on January 19, 1996, naval chief Admiral Vijay Singh Shekhawat finally convinced then secretary, DRDO, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, that the Barak was the only option left.

So where do the latest CBI allegations leave anti-corruption champion Fernandes? Well, he's been crying foul ever since the CBI linked his name, accusing the Congress and Sonia Gandhi of political vendetta. The ex-defence minister does not seem to have erred in clearing the Barak deal—the missile system was cheaper, better in strike capability and also matched the navy's requirement. The only question is whether the minister or his acolytes got their hands dirty in the process. If proved so, in the winter of his life, Fernandes could be doing the rounds of the courts for some time to come.
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