In the mid-1980s, as a young army officer, I had occasion to ride in the Kolos Tatra vehicles in the dusty deserts of Rajasthan. Compared to the locally manufactured Shaktiman, the army’s 3-tonne workhorse, the ride in the Tatra was an absolute delight. Lost in the romantic world of soldiering, I had no idea that three decades later, this vehicle would be in the eye of a storm—the “bribery bombshell” dropped by army chief Gen V.K. Singh. Given our huge defence budget, a range of operational commitments and the absence an effective military-industrial complex, India remains a magnet for suppliers of defence equipment. Our psus—the private sector has been kept out—have failed to come up with state-of-the-art technologies. Instead, they import systems to stay afloat, like the Kolos Tatra.
The army chief was apparently offered a bribe of Rs 14 crore to renew the monopoly of the Tatra vehicles in the Indian army. This has raised a storm, and all ex-military men working with companies that have a stake in the defence industry are now being viewed with suspicion. However, they are at best proxies for the big boys, who use serving and retired military officers to further their business. One reason for military officers taking this route—mostly after retirement—is that they have the domain expertise to do so. These officers know what is required and some of them can work the system to their employers’ advantage, having served in a branch of the service headquarters dealing with weapon systems and acquisitions.