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The Man In The Middle
George Fernandes has denied many aspects of the Tehelka tapes but what he hasn’t is perhaps more significant than what he has. For one, he hasn’t denied what former Samata Party treasurer R.K. Jain told Tehelka—that Suresh Nanda paid Rs 1 crore to Fernandes. Neither has Nanda denied this charge.
The name Suresh Nanda is expected to haunt Fernandes for some time to come. So, who is he? He is a former navy man and the surviving son of Admiral Sundarilal Mathuradas Nanda (pvsm), who was Chief of Naval Staff between 1970 and 1973. After demitting office, Nanda Sr became a defence middleman and floated a firm called Global Tech. Using his outstanding contacts in the services, bureaucracy and among politicians, the admiral soon became the country’s biggest arms dealer, leaving behind such names like the Hindujas, the Chaudhury brothers, Chetan Shah, Win Chadha, Vipin Khanna and Vinod Khanna (who was even arrested in the ’80s). And he managed this despite a ban on agents.
When Global Tech flourished, Suresh quit the navy and joined his father. The duo then floated Crown Corporation, and hired men in uniform who had access to the higher echelons of the services. Says one intelligence officer, "The number of serving bureaucrats and officers as well as diplomats who attend their parties is an indication of the Nandas’ clout."
In 1987, the IB initiated a probe after the Indian ambassador to Germany sent a telegram to then defence minister V.P. Singh saying German officials claimed commission had been paid to an arms broker in the hdw submarine deal. The disclosure created a furore and Singh ordered the inquiry. The agent in question: Nanda, who had replaced the original middlemen, the Hindujas.
His involvement didn’t surprise those in the defence establishment. As a defence official points out, "The Nandas run about 100 front companies stretching from South Africa to Moscow." Another intelligence official recalls running into a Crown Corporation representative in, of all places, Algiers. The Nandas are also the agents for parts for Vijayanta and Arjun tanks. Though the cbi later took up the investigation from the IB, it is unclear whether or not they came up with anything concrete against the admiral.
Nanda’s name first cropped up in connection with Fernandes when Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat released an affidavit on March 14, 1999, declaring: "I would like to state here that one particular arms dealer is Admiral S.M. Nanda who is the agent of several arms transactions for the importation of arms. While in the past all our deals with the erstwhile Soviet Union were from government to government on a long-term basis for payment in rupees, the situation is now radically changed." He then added, "I might…also state that our defence minister is also closely associated with Admiral Nanda and has been known to him (Nanda) since the days when he was a trade union leader in the Mazgaon Docks in Bombay when Nanda was the managing director."
On February 22, 1999, Bhagwat addressed a press conference in Delhi where he declared: "The (defence) minister was fully briefed on the methodology of subversion of navy officers by arms pedlars on May 4 and May 8, 1998; the fact that adverse remarks on Harinder Singh pertain to specific allegations incurred by this officer from M/s Crown Corporation and Makalu Engineering in Moscow, St Petersburg and London. Subsequently, Fernandes and Nanda entered into direct communication with each other and met before and after December 30, 1998... The names keep changing, so do directorships and their partnerships and front companies; but it is the same people who are middlemen for foreign interests peddling arms to India." Harinder Singh is now deputy chief of naval staff and is reported to have enjoyed the hospitality of a Crown representative in Moscow as well as London in May 1997.
In his book Betrayal of the Defence Forces, Bhagwat talks of negotiations for the acquisition of Admiral Gorshkov from Russia. "Three separate teams examined these (between) 1996 and 1998. The detailed sums led to our telling the Russian navy…that, according to our calculations, the final sum to be paid worked out to approximately $400 million and no more. The navy also recommended...that it be paid over four years and that an additional budgetary grant be made for it. Subsequent to my demitting office, middlemen, in particular Admiral Nanda & sons ...talked of a ship transfer price of over $700 million." Middlemen flourish in a situation where India is the eighth top recipient of conventional weapons—as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute judged it to be in 1997. Bhagwat’s affidavit puts the annual defence import bill "in the range of $1.5 billion".
Details on Suresh Nanda are sketchy. It’s known he studied in Delhi and is in his 50s, separated from his wife and is a British citizen, as is the fashion with arms dealers. His sister died in a chopper crash early this year. His son hit the headlines as prime accused in the infamous bmw case; the family secured his freedom against huge odds with a variation of what the Americans euphemistically call "plea bargaining". Truly, a man in the shadows.