Thursday, Aug 11, 2022

The Perils Of Being Manohar Parrikar

It is not edifying to see the defence minister of the country first promising clinching evidence against political rivals and then mumbling that it would take him two more months to get the evidence.

Photo by PTI

Imagine Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar rise in Parliament and seek the Speaker’s permission to make an important announcement. Imagine also that he announces the completion of the probe into AgustaWestland helicopter deal and adds with regret that the probe had found two opposition leaders, two ministers in the previous government, a former Air Force chief and several other people guilty of criminal conspiracy to line their own pockets at public expense.

Imagine also Mr Parrikar pulling himself up to his full height to announce that as he is speaking, the guilty were being taken into custody to face the trial.

Even if imaginary, it would have been a stunning performance.

But instead the defence minister over the weekend set an extraordinary benchmark for making inane insinuations and innuendos against political rivals.  Congress, he declared tastelessly and unnecessarily,  ‘owed both moral and criminal’ responsibility for the deal.  But why then was no action being taken, he was asked. To which his reply was that the investigation would take two to three more months to complete. What then was he suggesting on national TV?

He spoke on the AgustaWestland helicopter deal in Parliament first.  And BJP’s spin doctors went to town the previous day to suggest that the defence minister would reveal something that was fresh and eye-popping, a new set of evidence against the previous government.  In the event he did nothing of the kind but merely repeated what other BJP leaders had declared in the Rajya Sabha the previous day.

But then the defence minister moved a step further and spoke at length to various news channels. In ‘’exclusive interviews’ to TV channels he reiterated his resolve to punish every bribe-taker and get to the bottom of the deal.  The deal effectively was scrapped and buried three years ago when the Government of India recovered the 45 per cent advance it had paid to the Italian company till then by encashing the bank guarantee furnished by Finmeccanica.

It was the Italian company which lost the deal and the money, not the Government of India. The company executives and the middlemen (consultants) it had engaged were facing the music in Italian courts for losing money, pocketing money and possibly siphoning the company’s money.

So, should the country’s defence minister have been spending so much of his time and energy in making a political point and while doing so, undermine the credibility of a dozen different establishments, defence personnel and former Air Force chiefs? He was also questioning the role of three of his predecessors including the present President of India Pranab Mukherjee.

What was Manohar Parrikar trying so hard to achieve while reiterating what he had already said in Parliament?  He was clearly not satisfied with the live coverage of his speech in Parliament. He needed more air time on private news channels at prime time. And he felt obliged to repeat his noble resolve to go after corruption.  He is entitled to do so. But shouldn’t a responsible minister at least wait for the investigation to get over?

By the minister’s own admission it will take two-three months for the investigation to conclude. Why then did he exhibit this extraordinary haste in making half-baked insinuations in public?  Why didn’t he wait for the investigation to conclude?  Was he carried away by the praise he had received from the Prime Minister and leaders like Subramanian Swamy for his performance in Parliament? Or did he feel compelled to put up the show at this particular time for reasons not quite clear at this point of time?

The short and predictable answer probably is that in election season which is still on, BJP leaders would have felt it would do no harm to BJP’s prospects to raise the temperature and blame the previous government for omissions and commissions, even if it had no actionable evidence to proceed against them.  It at least served to divert attention from more pressing issues.

Would  the defence minister be as forthright in publicly discussing corruption in the armed forces, the explosive situation in the Kashmir valley, the lack of defence preparedness, the role of competing multinationals in scuttling defence deals or the need for withdrawal of AFSPA from J&K and the Northeast? Will Parrikar devote half an hour to each TV channel to air his views on these subjects as well? Of course he will not.  That is not his job.

It’s worth remembering that the BJP did stall Parliament for long durations during 2010-2014 when it was in the Opposition. It is again extraordinary that it is following exactly the same strategy now that it is the ruling party. If the strategy was meant to divert attention from the embarrassment it faced in court over promulgation of President’s Rule in Uttarakhand, it turned out to be successful. If it was meant to disallow Parliament from discussing the drought, it again was successful. But at what cost?

Nobody can object to the government and government agencies investigating charges of corruption against people in high places—by the last family or the first as Mr Parrikar described so eloquently. Nor can one object to a due process and a trial in court. But when the ruling party tries to misuse the Parliament and the mass media to create a frenzy, which is likely to influence the investigation, even before they are completed, one can legitimately suspect their motive and question the propriety of such an exercise.

The last time a former defence minister went around the country alleging corruption in a defence deal was V.P. Singh in 1987.  At that time the ‘Rajah’ had promised that he would get people prosecuted in 60 days because he had even the number of the Swiss bank where the ‘kickback’ had been stashed. Bofors brought down a government and keeps haunting the then ruling party, the Congress. But no actionable evidence was found even by the earlier NDA Governments.

It is not edifying to see the defence minister of the country first promising clinching evidence against political rivals and then mumbling that it would take him two more months to get the evidence. One hopes for his own sake that he does.