Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Beyond Barak

Charges of corruption in defence deals are political witch-hunts and personal vendettas, claims the close aide of former Defence Minister George Fernandes and it affects morale of the armed forces. Nonsense, counters the former chief of Indian Navy.

Beyond Barak

The full transcript of BBC Hindi special programme Aapki Baat BBC Ke Saath with former chief of Indian Navy Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat and Digvijay Singh, senior leader of Janata Dal (United) & a close aide of former Defence Minister George Fernandes.

Nagendar Sharma: Why are important defence deals which are extremely crucial for security of the country mired in political controversies and financial gains of political leaders?

Digvijay Singh: My view is that defence deals are made controversial for political reasons to settle scores and an effort is made to eliminate political rivals through these, otherwise this country has been doing deals for defence equipments procurement for more than five decades now without any trouble. Take the latest case of purchase of Barak missile system – the CBI is being used for political reasons to trouble George Fernandes. Two commissions were formed earlier — Venkatswamy Commission and the Phukan Commission—both of which cleared Mr Fernandes of any wrongdoing. I fail to understand when two former judges of the Supreme Court did not find anything illegal, what the CBI is trying to do.

Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat: Having spent a major part of my life in armed forces, I am fully aware of the defence needs of our country. What surprises me is that during past six years, India has become the second largest arms importing country in the world. During the previous NDA regime, after Pokhran-II, the arms import plan approved by the government was unprecedented in Indian history and it is really amazing that a government which claimed to have made the country a nuclear weapons state, still chose to spend so much on arms import. India’s defence budget went up thrice during the NDA regime and it is surprising that the governments continue to spend mindlessly on defence, despite even the Human Development Report (HDR) having pointed that we are 128th in the world in HDR indices. Pointless defence procurement is being done to further political gains even when one out of every third malnourished child below five years of age in the world belongs to India. Therefore defence deals are not only mired in controversies, they are generated to gain financial and political benefits.

Listener from Azamgarh (UP): Sir, whether Barak is a good missile system or not should be left to the armed forces, why do politicians interfere? Every defence deal, right from the time of Bofors, is made controversial and nothing comes out in the end. Why?

Digvijay Singh : You have started from Bofors, so let me answer that first. During Rajiv Gandhi’s days, it was Swedish Radio which first of all revealed the role of middlemen in Bofors deal and then it was not the opposition, but Mr V P Singh, himself a minister in Rajiv cabinet, who spoke against it and made it into an issue. True, that later on, opposition parties rallied around V P Singh, and Bofors became a fodder for Rajiv Gandhi bashing. However, I think the real issue why people and especially Indian middle classes were angry against Rajiv regime was the over-turning of Shah Bano judgement by parliament. It sent a message across the country that any government with an absolute majority would not listen to anyone, therefore Bofors was the last straw, while other issues were much more serious. From then on, it is a fallacious impression that defence deals are always done under political interference. I have already told you what I think about Barak.

Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat: Political interference is there in defence deals, and it is not hidden from anyone. I would like to cite the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) report of 2001, which said that all rules and regulations were bypassed in the defence purchases for Kargil conflict. The government at that time did not allow that report to reach the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of parliament.

The CAG report says that during Kargil conflict, shelf life-expired ammunition worth Rs 92 crore were purchased, and one shudders to think that these were supplied to our jawans fighting to defend the frontlines of the country. Is this less than any other act of sedition?

Look at the reports of Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) between 2001 and 2004—all of them have said that the defence acquisitions were faulty and even the services at times, under direct pressure from the Defence Minister at that time, gave consent to wrong purchases

I know from my personal experience that the cost for acquisition of aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov in August 1998 was fixed at US $ 400 million in Moscow, however a few months later, in February, in collusion with Admiral Nanda and his son, George Fernandes, the Defence Minister at that time, got the price fixed at US $ 738 million, tell me how this was possible and how this could have been done without political pressure and collusion between politicians and middlemen? I do not know how these politicians say there is no interference.

Listener from Bihar: Irrespective of what one political party or the other says, for us, the common people of the country, the impression is that middlemen are involved in all defence deals. In light of this, should not all the political parties accept the practical suggestion of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that if middlemen can’t be done away with, then their role should be regulated. How do you react?

Digvijay Singh: It is a fact that there are middlemen in defence deals and nobody can deny that. Reasons for their presence can be many – big companies do not have time to deal with everyone, they need somebody to do deals on their behalf. It is also a fact that there are only a few countries in the world which sell arms and they like to do it their own way. When NDA was in power, we had mooted a suggestion that the role of middlemen be clearly defined, however unfortunately the party of the current Prime Minister opposed it and unanimity could not be reached. We welcome the statement of the Prime Minister and if all agree on his suggestion, we have no problem.

Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat: With due respect to the Prime Minister, I would like to clearly say he has been wrongly advised on the issue. It is very unfortunate that an honest man leading the country should have formed such an opinion, as presence of middlemen is a very dangerous trend: we have been victims of so many acts of subversions of military and civilian intelligence due to these middlemen and this should be shelved straightaway.

The Defence Procurement Procedure 2006 eliminates all middlemen. During the days when defence procurement was being done from the erstwhile Soviet Union, there were no middlemen at that time. In my view, middlemen should never be allowed in defence procurement deals as these elements carry out acts of subversion against the military establishment and intelligence agencies. They work as intelligence stooges of foreign agencies and hike the price of equipments by at least fifteen percent.

In this communication era, there is absolutely no need of middlemen, who are at best post offices for defence deals. They have little or no knowledge about the equipments, systems and their operational details.

Listener from Jodhpur: Politicians play strange games and when George Fernandes was in trouble due to shady defence deals during his tenure, he did not hesitate even for a moment to name President Kalam also in Barak deal, though facts that have now emerged infact show APJ Abdul Kalam had opposed the deal. Why is George now afraid to face the law and why should action also not be taken against retired Admiral Nanda whose family was also involved in the same deal?

Digvijay Singh: I do not know who said what with regards to the other. However, when the matter is between the DRDO and a ministry, both have a right to have their opinion. I have never been a part of the Defence Ministry, but what I have gathered from newspaper reports and news channels is that Mr Kalam, who was the scientific advisor at that time, wanted Trishul instead of Barak missile system. We are talking of the year 2000, however it is strange that even when 2006 is ending, there is no word about the completion of Trishul and we should not forget that armed forces cannot take a chance with the defence equipments. I would also like to clarify that if any decision with regards to defence deal has been taken, it is not taken by any individual. It is the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) which approves any deal, and who are members of the CCS – Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Defence Minister, Finance Minister and External Affairs Minister – when it is a collective decision, how can you point a finger alone at George Fernandes?

Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat: Broadly Mr Digvijay Singh is right, but we should not forget that the matter does not reach the CCS, without the approval and recommendation of service chiefs and the Defence Minister. First the concerned chief of the force and then the Minister recommends any particular weapons system and then only does it get the final approval.

Rules very clearly state that defence purchases upto Rs 50 Crore are authorised by the Defence Secretary, therefore George Fernandes technically can escape that, but what about these expired ammunition purchases, which could not have been done without his authorisation? Today he can point fingers at the President or even the council of ministers of that time citing collective responsibility, but the fact remains that even the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) decides only after it has been authorised and approved by the service chiefs and the Defence Ministry.

So far as your question on importance of middlemen and people like Admiral Nanda is concerned – friendship between George Fernandes and Admiral Nanda goes back 35 years, when George was the President of State Maribound Dock Workers Union in Mumbai and Admiral Nanda was its Managing Director. I hope CBI would unearth all this. What I am saying is that either it is friendship or relations with those who turn into middlemen which politicians exploit in these defence deals.

Listener from Shillong: Sir, the way political leaders attack each other and do public mudslinging especially on defence deals is shocking. George Fernandes recently went to the extent of attacking President Kalam and the kind of language he uses against Congress President Sonia Gandhi is condemnable. What effect does this have on the morale of the armed forces?

Digvijay Singh : The language has been objectionable, especially against George Fernandes. When he was the Defence Minister, the Congress-led opposition at that time did not allow the Parliament to function for a long time and he was boycotted for more than two years. Even the Congress President herself called him coffin-thief and what not. Why is the Congress-led government now not probing all those matters? They are simply happy with witch-hunt against a leader who is in the twilight of his long career. All such unsubstantiated political attacks do affect the morale of armed forces in my view.

Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat: Look, it does not look nice when politicians cry hoarse about the morale of armed forces. Today those who are talking about morale and all that, would they tell me why Rear Admiral Purohit was turned out of service? Can any of the ministers in NDA government explain this? He was eased out because he was not ready to tolerate interference from influential people close to Prime Minister Vajpayee and his son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya.