Everyone needs to shake-off the unfortunate legacy of the Bofors purchase
Meet the state-of-the-art in India’s counter-intelligence capabilities — The Suspicious Wife. The CBI may have conducted raids all over the country but it was a complaint by an Indian Air Force officer’s wife that set in motion India’s latest defence procurement scandal (via Frederick Noronha).
From what is publicly known, the ‘naval war room leak case’ is not, as its sounds, a case of a foreign power spying on India’s military secrets. Rather, it involves the alleged leak of the Indian Navy’s procurement documents to some middlemen and potentially, to prospective foreign suppliers. After Bofors, the mere whiff of a scandal in defence deals leaves both opposition politicians and journalists rubbing their hands in glee (which is wonderful for transparency, of course, if it only led to it). In the latest case, the involvement of a nephew of the navy chief’s wife, an alleged middleman with family connections to the Congress party and the Nehru-Gandhi family and the navy’s lacklustre internal investigation have made the scandalous bit, well, more scandalous.
Shady defence deals are by no means unique to India. But why have these scandals been occuring so frequently in recent years? The Bofors deal — and its impact on India’s politics and bureaucracy — can fairly be held responsible to a large extent. The ironic legacy of the Bofors deal is that while the gun itself helped India win a war, the controversy surrounding its purchase has infected India’s defence establishment with a chronic malaise. No significant purchase can be made without setting off some kind of convulsions. Moreover, India’s defence bureaucracy responded to the Bofors scandal in its own characteristic style — by making more, and more complicated rules. India’s defence procurement system is, therefore, a middleman’s dream. And good middlemen have both political connections and contacts ‘inside’. Only, hidden cameras and suspicious wives can spoil the party.
India’s defence procurement philosophy and practice are crying out for rationalisation. Firstly, at the risk of repeating a cliche, there is a need for fewer, and simpler rules. The shadiness of middlemen, for instance, owes its existence to the opacity surrounding their operations. They operate as part of a dark grey license-permit raj that must be jettisoned in favour of a well-regulated, transparent system that legitimises but better regulates the middlemen.
Secondly, it is in matters relating to procurement that the tension between the armed forces and the desk-warriors in the defence ministry is at its most intense. It is necessary to defuse this, for instance, through better definition of their respective roles. As end users, the armed forces must define, evaluate and select their equipment. There is a related task of institutionalising the interaction between the service chiefs and the Cabinet Committee on Security. This has broader implications, but unfortunately is yet to figure on the government’s radar screen.
Finally, the endless politicisation of defence deals that began with Bofors must end. A non-partisan approach, for instance, through the oversight of a joint parliamentary committee with cross-party representation is a good way forward. In general, parliamentary committees have had a limited role in the Indian context. But employing them for defence procurement provides a way to exorcise Bofors’ political ghost.
Not only does India have a clear need to modernise its armed forces, it also has the resources to achieve this. It is a pity therefore, that the defence rupee is not spent — for genuine theoretical reasons but inexcusable practical ones.