India's defence scandal

By Brian Cloughley, March 2001

To uphold the morale of the armed forces and to prevent further damage to our national defence, I have decided to resign from government," said Mr George Fernandes on March 15. In other words, he was found out. How very unfortunate for Pakistan, because Mr Fernandes, together with India's Defence Research and Development Organisation, formed a vital tool in Pakistan's arsenal. He was ignorant of defence matters, easily influenced by loony-light-bulb enthusiasts for any weird bit of equipment, and appointed only because of his political affiliations. DRDO is a top-heavy, badly managed, profligate spender of vast sums of money on "indigenously manufactured" defence items that don't work. With a combination like that, there is little wonder India's defences have been in a dreadful state, and will continue to be so for a very long time to come.

The revelation that dozens of people in important positions around India were on the take in the sleazy bazaar that is the arms' market should come as no surprise, for there are few more corrupt processes than those involving weapon's contracts. What is deeply disturbing is that military officers have accepted cash for furthering deals involving sub-standard weapons. This saddens anyone who is conscious that the Indian armed forces are a bastion of honour and decency, whose officer corps is of high quality, but it is a regrettable fact that in even the best-regulated circles the lure of quick cash can overcome a sense of duty.

Little did I imagine that I would ever read of a major general saying ". . . if you are talking about a deal which is 20 crore here, 60 crore there, make a profit of 5 crore, saala, if you come to my house to meet me on Diwali, you can't talk without bringing Blue Label. If you are talking of bloody making a couple of crores of rupees, you can't give me Black label also? Isn't it?" This is pretty sad stuff, but we must remember that it doesn't go on everywhere, all the time. Most Indian officers are honourable fellows, just like their counterparts in Pakistan and in a few other countries.

Doubtless India's Central Vigilance Commission will be working overtime for many months, and there will be courts martial galore, but there is now a golden opportunity for the Indian government to put the cleaners through the inefficient Ministry of Defence, an organisation locked in a time-warp that steadfastly refuses to alter procedures designed by the British seventy years ago. Of course, the purpose of the British regulations was to confound attempts at bribery and brown-envelope jobs, and they succeeded through a combination of intricacy of procedure and an inbuilt sense of honour which would be laughed at today. To be sure, politicians of a century ago, and more, were just as devious as they are in modern times. One just has to examine the record of Britain's infamous Lloyd George, who would do anything for money, to understand that these people are totally without principles. They seek to rule us while telling us they are "representatives of the people" and all the time they are conning us for everything they can. The present regime in Britain is the closest thing to autocracy the country has reached since the emergency government during the Second World War, and its members, and especially its prime minister, get away with lies, dodgy passport arrangements with Indian businessmen, and general chicanery and dishonesty that is almost unbelievable. Some civil servants retain a sense of duty and honour, in spite of most being heavily politicised, but this is not wholly evident in India. Nor was it, of course, in Pakistan, under the last decade of 'democracy.'

Mr RK Jain, Treasurer of India's Samata Party, George Fernandes' fiefdom, was up to his neck in influencing his boss to choose the Advanced Jet Trainer aircraft (although in the record he calls it the "Air Jet Trainer", which shows how expert he was in defence matters). The story is as squalid and tawdry as all the others captured by the investigative reporters, and explains exactly why the choice of an advanced jet training aircraft has taken decades to reach decision. There was no consideration of the fact that young Indian Air Force pilots were dying by the score because they were inadequately trained (and had to fly MiG-21 aircraft thrown together by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited). Nor was there mention of operational requirements or force structure: none of that. There was, however, talk of money--lots and lots of money--for the Samata Party. Mr Jain is recorded as saying ". . . MiG people approached me. I went to the boss (Mr Fernandes). I said "look, sir, this . . . is a very big job, worth of 4,000 crores. 3,600, to be precise . . . and if you bless me, then I'll take the agency from them and do it." Mr Jain then went on to discuss commissions with the Russian MiG representative and said "No, I can't do it for less than 10% whether the deal is small or big because in this particular deal the PM is also going to be involved at one stage. It needs Cabinet approval. So my Party will expect at least three per cent. PM house will expect at least three per cent. And how do I survive in seven per cent? . . . ." The odious Mr Jain carried on convicting himself out of his own mouth, and it is not necessary to further retail his mean and disgraceful antics, or those of his master, concerning the defence of his country. Suffice to say that the entire spectrum of Indian defence procurement is in desperate need of cleansing.

I believe that the Russian T-90 tank is unsuitable for Indian conditions and that its ammunition and target-acquisition system are sub-standard. I consider the Russian Su-30 aircraft programme to be a shambles that will set back the Indian Air Force by at least five years, and that involvement with Russia in the Advanced Technology Vessel (nuclear submarine) project is nothing less than disastrous. Further, the major surface combatants being obtained from Russia are inadequate to the point of criminal neglect in counter-missile and anti-submarine technology. The MiG-21 rebuild programme is a mega-crore scam involving avionics that would disgrace a 1930s biplane. The "indigenous" Light Combat Aircraft is a national prestige symbol that has cost billions and is the joke of the aviation world (or at least that part of it that has not benefited financially from cooperation). The "indigenous" Arjun tank has been rejected by the army, which is terrified that it might be forced to accept more than the 124 of these dinosaurs foisted upon it by the Defence Ministry. The Advanced Light Helicopter is neither advanced nor light, and will never see service with army, navy or air force, unless they are forced to take a token few; and the basic infantry weapon, the 5.56 mm rifle, is an embarrassing failure. The secure light combat radio does not exist, and there are no ground-detection radars. I could go on and on, listing the terrible deficiencies in India's defences. They are amazing and most serious. And now we all know why.

"That guy approached me," said Mr Jain on tape and camera. "He is the man who was looking after the Hawk (trainer aircraft) interest as well as the MiG." And also "because, there, you see, he is a representative of the Sukhoi (Su-30) . . . . so he was representing both the companies. MiG as well as Hawk" -- no wonder there has been a problem about obtaining a training aircraft for the Indian Air Force -- and Mr Jain then says "It's fine. But I am sorry. I cannot shake hands with British Hawk. I was told by George Fernandes that the order will go to MiG." One wonders, of course, just what approaches might have been made by the British, too, and what their response might have been. One Australian company (what others?) does not seem to have had any qualms about brown-enveloping, and the French and Israelis, as usual, are recorded as having been up to their ears in bribery. But one real problem, for a desperate Indian Air Force, is that a decision to purchase a modern trainer will once again, for the umpteenth time, be deferred. And more young pilots will die. And heaven help the Army with the T-90 deal.

Do India's pompous and corrupt politicians, the rotten party treasurers, the obnoxious middlemen, the base and servile bureaucrats, the fat, sleazy officers who disgrace their uniform, care about their country's defence? Not a bit.

The lesson of the Indian scandal is not to rejoice. After all, I wonder how many of us, on a tiny salary or pension, would disregard a fat brown envelope if we thought we could get away with it?

The author is a commentator on political and military affairs