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GOVERNMENT REFUSES TO LEARN FROM THE PAST

KICKBACKS, SCANDALS IN DEFENCE DEALS ARE COMMON

By Nantoo Banerjee

More than the magnitude of possible financial irregularities in the 7.8-billion Euro Rafale deal, relating to the purchase of only 36 multirole fighter aircraft from France’s Dassault Aviation, it is the government’s frank admission before the Supreme Court, last week, that the documents on which the case rests were “stolen” and could not be produced in the court is more scandalous. It raises a very pertinent question about the safety are our ‘secret’ documents under seemingly inviolable custody of the country’s defence ministry. Do the “stolen” Rafale purchase documents compromise on national security? Who is or are responsible for the “theft” of such sensitive documents from the defence ministry’s high security vault, getting them “photocopied” before smuggling them out? Attorney General KK Venugopal’s revised version of the ‘theft’ raises more questions than it answers. Was the AG misled in the first place? Why did the government hid such a critical information from the country’s highest court of judicature, earlier. Why did the defence minister maintained her silence even after the official admission of theft of these documents. The government’s admission further fuelled the political controversy, which is unlike to die down soon.

Top opposition leaders were quick to express their anguish and concern. West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee came down heavily on the government over the “stolen” Rafale documents marked ‘secret’ from the defence ministry. “If defence documents can be stolen, how can the Modi government protect the nation? ..…… What has happened is unthinkable,” she said.  Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s tweet — there is now enough evidence to prosecute the PM in the #RafaleScam. The trail of corruption begins & ends with him….— suggests the nature of political potshots the present government may face from top opposition party leaders in the coming weeks.

Incidentally, controversies over kickbacks and irregularities in defence equipment import deals are nothing new in India. It started from the time of the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The tradition continued through the successive governments. The major defence import scandals in the past included Bofors guns from Sweden, German HDW and French Scorpene submarines, Tatra trucks from Czech Republic, Cargill war coffins from the USA and Agusta Westland helicopters from Italy. But, nothing to beat the scandal now surfacing around the nature of Rafale deal in terms of its military exigence, the  high contract value, reduced size of acquisition and involvement of Gujarat businessman Anil Ambani. The latter is running a market debt of over Rs.50,000 crore and recently sentenced by the Supreme Court a jail term if failed to pay Ericsson dues.

Yet, this is not the first defence purchase scam under the present government. Soon after the Modi government came to power in 2014, Ukraine alleged kickbacks to  defence ministry officials for the supply of spares for the Indian Air Force’s transport aircraft AN-32. Ukraine’s National Anti-corruption Bureau (NAB) had sent a “request for international legal assistance” to India’s home ministry through its ambassador in Kiev. The Ukrainian firm Spetstechnoexport alleged that even after 11 months of signing the deal with MoD, another pact was signed with the Global Marketing SP Ltd for its implementation. NAB has the details on the second agreement with Global Marketing and names of the defence ministry officials who were the parties in the discussion with this agency. NAB has also initiated an inquiry for the alleged transfer of funds through their account in Noor Islamic Bank in Dubai. In value terms, it was a small scandal that went almost unnoticed by the country’s opposition parties, which were still recovering from a huge setback in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Despite the series of defence import scandals over the years, the government refused to learn and take actions to correct its purchase procedures. Instead of building a large defence manufacturing base within the country, the government continues to depend heavily on imports to meet its growing defence requirements. India, the world’s largest defence equipment importer, spent over a record $100 billion in defence imports in the last 10 years. Incidentally, defence deals are always linked with kickbacks. A five to seven percent kickback in defence deals are said to be common in the $100-billion-plus annual defence trade. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India’s defence imports increased by 24 percent over the last 10 years. India’s arms imports accounted for 12 percent of the arms transfers in the world. “The tensions between India, on the one side, and Pakistan and China, on the other, are fuelling India’s growing demand for major weapons, which it remains unable to produce itself,” the SIPRI report said. China spends heavily on defence manufacturing and exports. China upped its defence expenditure by 7.5 percent in 2019. It is emerging as a major arms supplier to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Although Russia still continues to be the biggest supplier of arms to India, accounting for about 60 percent of India’s imports. The picture is changing. Lately, India is importing heavily from the US, EU and Israel. Imports from the US increased by a whopping 557 percent between 2012 and 2017. The US is now India’s second largest arms supplier, sharing nearly 15 percent of its imports. Israel’s share of India’s arms import has grown to over seven percent. And, India accounts for over 40 percent of Israel’s global arms export. SIPRI said “India expects increasing deliveries due to several major orders from France (another traditional supplier) and from the US, South Korea and Spain – all of which only recently became suppliers of major weapons to India.” Unfortunately, the Modi government’s $250-billion domestic defence manufacturing plan to produce fighter jets, guns and submarines locally remained largely in the drawing board. Under such circumstances, India may not be able to escape from arms import scandals until the country becomes a major global producer itself like China. (IPA Service)

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