The Modi government deserves credit for putting a stop to a culture of scandals in defence deals

by  Amit Cowshish

But for the unproven allegations of corruption in the Rs 58,891 crore deal with France's Dassault Aviation to supply 36 Rafale medium multirole combat aircraft, which unsurprisingly surfaced in the run up to the 2019 parliamentary elections, defence purchases have lately been free from any major scandal.

The government can justifiably take the credit for softening the public perception, built on a series of scandals starting with the Bofors Howitzer scam in 1980s, that all defence deals were shady.

Subsequent scandals surrounding acquisition of HDW and Scorpene submarines, Barak missiles, and AgustaWestland VVIP helicopters too pointed to the ubiquitous influence of the middlemen in big defence deals, reinforcing the prevailing notions of rampant corruption in high places.

Officials’ Integrity A Key Factor

While personal integrity of officials performing various acquisition-related functions and negotiating defence deals has been critical in preventing corruption and improving the image of the Ministry of Defence, some other factors may also have made it possible.

One such factor is the finetuning of processes linked with various stages of procurement to plug the loopholes exploited by unscrupulous elements. The current procurement manual, for example, proclaims that the objective of field evaluation trials is to nurture competition by testing the equipment offered for trial based on its anticipated employability and according to mutually accepted norms, and not to unilaterally reject it on flimsy grounds.

Inter-Governmental Agreements

Single-source procurement of major equipment and platforms from abroad via inter-governmental agreements may also have helped. The procedure laid down in the MoD manuals, which is somewhat susceptible to manipulation, is not required to be followed strictly in such cases; instead, it can be customised, and the contract concluded on mutually acceptable terms.

This is also true of the analogous Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program which requires the MoD to follow the procedure laid down by the US government’s Defence Security Cooperation Agency.

There is greater probity in these single-source procurements as compared with the deals finalised through competitive bidding which are prone to middlemen interceding on their principals’ behalf to secure the contracts for them.

Delegation of Buying Powers

Sometimes the overworked officials inadvertently fail to conduct due diligence, follow some instruction, or read the signs of transgression in a particular case. Delegation of capital procurement powers to the Services Headquarters (SHQ) -- currently capped at Rs 300 crore per contract -- allows the MoD officials to pay greater attention to bigger contracts, leaving it to the SHQs to process smaller value cases with greater care and speed.

The MoD cannot afford to rest on its laurels, though. It would be disingenuous to deny that the defence procurements suffer from excessive procedural controls, inflexibility in decision-making and lack of transparency in many areas. Though intended to prevent transgressions, this assemblage is not conducive to expeditious procurement.

While things are looking up, complacency and slackness in dealing with allegations of corruption can be harmful. The corrupt must be prosecuted and punished quickly. Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty, but also the best antidote to corruption.