Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Growing Corruption in Defense: Army Chief in New Controversy

Indian Army Chief General VK Singh has blown the lid off defense corruption in India by suggesting in an interview to The Hindu. The General Singh had claimed in media interviews that a lobbyist, who had "just" retired, offered him a bribe of Rs 14 crore for clearing a file relating to purchase of a tranche of 600 "sub-standard" vehicles of a particular make and he had immediately informed Defense Minister A K Antony about the same.
In his explanation through the media he has said that by not addressing the main issue of his date of birth, the Supreme Court has created more confusion. It is clear he did not accept the court verdict in the spirit it was delivered. Instead, after the verdict he has dragged in former Army Chief General JJ Singh, calling him the main architect of the date of birth controversy.
Undoubtedly, the Army chief has committed a few improprieties — not taking up his age issue as upfront as he did when he became the Chief of Army Staff (COAS); making a patently erroneous distinction between his personal case and the office of the COAS; filing a statutory complaint against the government and setting an unhealthy trend among the rank-and-file of questioning lawful authority; and, on rejection of his statutory complaint, taking the government to court. To cap it all, he did not put in is papers even after he lost his case in court.
The Czech-origin Tatra multi-wheeled vehicles, manufactured by a public sector unit under license, were being supplied to the Army for the past 25 years. If the quality of the vehicle was indeed unsatisfactory, why did the Army never complain in writing? What is more, it is said that only one vendor has supplied the vehicle to the Army since 1986 and enjoyed a virtual monopoly. Why was then a bribe needed to be paid to General Singh? While General Singh’s insinuation that at least some of his predecessors might have been bribed to keep quiet about the quality of the vehicle has stirred the hornet’s nest, the retired officer named by the Army chief has denied the allegation and any interest in the vehicle, claiming that he has been engaged in only real estate and mining since his retirement.
Defense Ministry’s Response
The defense minister has corroborated the Army chief’s allegation of a Rs 14-crore bribe offered to him by Lieutenant General (retired) Tejinder Singh, but blamed Gen VK Singh of “inaction” in the matter.
Making a statement in the Rajya Sabha (upper house of the Parliament), Antony mentioned Lieutenant General (retired) Tejinder Singh by name and said he had asked the General to act, but he did not want to pursue the matter for unknown reasons. This, and the assertion that he himself could not act as there was no written complaint from the chief were the explanations that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) refused to buy.
Cases Against Army Chief and Others
Lt Gen (retd) Tejinder Singh has filed a criminal defamation case against General Singh and others in a Delhi court, rejecting allegations that he had offered Rs 14 crore as bribe to the General to strike a defense deal.
Tejinder Singh asked the court to summon and initiate proceedings against General Singh for making the "libelous" statement in media.
In his complaint, the retired Lt General has also named Vice Chief of Army staff SK Singh, Lt Gen B S Thakur (D G MI), Major General S L Narshiman (Additional Director General of Public Information and Lt Col Hitten Sawhney accusing them of misusing their official position, power and authority to level false charges against him.
Alarming Questions
The important aspect of this present controversy is that people fail to understand why did not General Singh, who enjoys a just reputation for integrity — exactly like defense minister— not have his dubious interlocutor arrested on the spot? Asked about this in a television interview, General Singh said he was too shocked as the vile suggestion was made by an officer just recently retired and was couched in indirect terms. General Singh said he went up to the defense minister right away and informed him of the distasteful episode.
What action did Antony choose to take apart from “holding his head” and instructing the chief not to let shady characters into our defense trade. Knowing our Parliament, it will probably get fixated on this issue (it must certainly investigate it though), and not pay attention to the wider (and pressing) question of corruption in defense purchases that could have the effect of selling our soldiers down the river in a military crisis.
Earlier in March 2012, the Defense Ministry banned six foreign and two Indian companies for 10 years for allegedly being involved in the payment of hefty sums to the director-general of the ordnance board to secure the contract for setting up factories to produce specialized materials for artillery shells. The firms included the Israeli government company that manages much of that country’s defense exports to India, and Israel is now India’s second largest defense exporter.
General Singh has used the bribery revelations to illustrate that he is being targeted by the establishment for ferreting out the corrupt within the system which had corroded the internal health of the Army. In graphic detail he has explained how corruption has burrowed into the innards of the Army. He has claimed that a retired unnamed officer offered him Rs 14 crore as bribe if he would clear a file. He asked him to leave and reported the matter to the defense minister.
However, the question lies: when the General B K Singh had informed the defense minister; why Antony kept mum in all these months, he should have ordered enquiry into the matter! Moreover, why the Army chief himself not lodged FIR against the person, who had offered bribe in his chamber; who prevented him how the general also kept mum? Only after the age controversy of General Singh, and the judgment going against him and now he is on verge of retirement, Singh is making public all these things? General Singh should have lodged FIR against the responsible person, who came to him personally to offer bribe! Undoubtedly, the Army chief is of impeccable character but his Defense Minister Antony is also known for honest and integrity.
Wrong Timing of Charges
Moreover, why did General Singh choose to go public with the bribery charge now and not earlier? The question is pertinent because as early as March 6, 2012, the Army put out a press release accusing a retired lieutenant. General of offering a bribe on behalf of a company that supplies trucks. Inexplicably, while the press release did not fight shy of naming the person who allegedly offered the bribe, it was silent on who he tried to induce.
General Singh should have started his crusade against bribe-givers more robustly much earlier and not at the fag end of a flagging career. It is true that he pushed the Adarsh Housing Society scandal and the Sukna land scam. But the timing of the latest revelations in The Hindu and The Economic Times is suspect. The immediate fallout from his interview and allegations is a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry in which the Army chief, the unnamed General, the defense minister and officials of the Ministry will be quizzed. The Defense acquisition procedure in which the Army is worst hit will slow down even further, with more defense companies being blacklisted. Even more worrying will be the worsening state of civil-military relations, especially between the Army Headquarters and the Defense Ministry.
Positive Aspect
An officer of impeccable integrity, General Singh's attempts to crack down on corruption in the Army, particularly the Sukna land and Adarsh Housing Society scams, shows he has what it takes to be a tough reform-oriented leader. Which is what makes the seemingly casual handling of an alleged attempt to bribe him somewhat puzzling. If the defense minister did not take his complaint seriously, the Army chief could have pursued the matter in a variety of ways.
Whatever the reason for this reluctance, it is clear that the controversy over his age — a matter strictly between himself and the defense establishment — has caused collateral damage in other areas and spawned unrelated disputes that have the potential of causing divisions in the Army, particularly in the top echelons, and in the Defense Ministry between uniformed men and political leaders.
It is abhorrent on the part of General Singh in making sweeping statements and accusations in public to sensationalize the issue rather than making appropriate moves to get the bribe inducer booked and tried with valid proof. It is high time that he stops sullying the image of the army with his politician like demeanor and brings disrepute to the exalted post he holds until he remits office.
It is really surprising why General Singh who is known for his firm stand against corruption kept mum on following up with this issue and what prompted him to open the can of worms at this point of time? He could have got this monkey off his back as soon as this issue surfaced and why waited for over an year and that too when it is time for retirement?
No investigation would change the systems which have been fine-tuned to corruption. Only a grass roots education of citizens of evils of corruption would help reduce corruption. Hope this takes place. We do not need heroes like Anna to address corruption; we need awareness programs to make a common man aware of evils of corruption. Hope we can initiate these awareness without involvement of political parties.

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