Overdue desserts

[Shashi Kant Sharma, IAS, ex-CAG, fmr Defence Secretary]

The more one interacts, the more one knows, and the more familiar one gets with the rot of corruption, loot and pelf on an industrial scale entrenched in the Indian system of government at the central, state and local levels, which is eating away at the entrails of the military as well. That “make as much as you can, while you can”-mentality and attitude long ago established a foothold in the military, is common knowledge.

Whatever else the BJP governments under Narendra Modi since 2014 have not done, they have succeeded — to an extent — in curbing the kind of often brazen siphoning off of national financial resources at the senior bureaucratic and ministerial levels that was the norm in the previous decades. At the highest political level, it is now a couple of “crony capitalists” who are rumoured to be subsidising BJP’s successful election campaigns that does away with collecting small time funds for the party coffers.

The easiest way politicians, bureaucrats and militarymen discovered to rake in the moolah was through multi-billion dollar defence deals where the foreign vendors were only too keen to payoff in millions of dollars those in the procurement loop in return for multi-billion dollar contracts. The bigtime moneymaking began in the 1980s with the Rajiv Gandhi government, when “sophisticated” Italian methods and schemes for indirect payments were imported whole and subsequently localised. Especially useful were the turnkey projects — such as for the Snam Progetti fertiliser plants, managed by the infamous Italian middleman, Quatrocchi, with reach into the then PM’s home — recall all that? In the defence sphere, the deals for the German HDW 201 diesel submarine and, most memorably, the 155mm howitzer whose name — ‘Bofors’ entered the political lexicon, and spawned controversies. The AugustaWestland deal for helicopters and for the Pilatus turboprop trainer aircraft during the Manmohan Singh period, was at the tailend of that series of Rajiv Gandhi-era scams (after all Manmohan Singh, an unprepossessing sarkari economist, was hoisted into the prime minister’s seat by Sonia Gandhi, becoming by his own account an “accidental prime minister” and effectively a figurehead for a government run by remote control).

An attempt to bring those involved in the Augusta boondoggle to book is finally underway. The Central Bureau of Investigation has chargesheeted Shashi Kant Sharma, ex-IAS, former Comptroller and Accountant General of India and ex-Defence Secretary, who as Joint Secretary (Air) approved the deal for Augusta helicopters for VVIP use. But why it took the Modi regime nearly a year and a half to allow CBI to charge Sharma and his four IAF co-conspirators — retired Air Vice Marshal Jasbir Singh Panesar, Air Commodores SA Kunte and N. Santosh, and Wing Commander Thomas Mathew, is a murky mystery.

Sharma, amongst the smoothest operators, spent 10 long years in the MoD in various capacities to rise to the top. What he, a generalist babu, learned about military affairs during his time in the ministry is not known. But that he specialised in facilitating all manner of suspect, scammy defence deals, there’s no doubt. On May 6, 2016, in a post on “bureaucratic facilitators of corruption” I had written this: “The point to make is that bureaucrats, as handmaidens of corruption, invariably get away with the vilest wrongdoing, assisting their political masters to milk the system while keeping a lot or little for themselves as nest egg, even as everybody else gets hauled up. This has to end. Consider just how crucial the IAS babus are in the procurement game. The military service’s role is limited primarily to the drawing of SRs and then technically and professionally justifying the hardware pre-selected by the political leaders, the rest of the shortlisting process being so much eyewash — this has been the Congress Party’s record anyway. The DG Acquisitions, MOD, is actually central to approving hardware purchases. And Price Negotiation Committee (PNC) headed by Add Sec, MOD, Joint Sec (concerned service) and Defence Finance officers, with a one-star rank military officer asked to fill space at the negotiating table and not actually participate, firming up the contract. And because IAS babus in MOD are generalists — whose knowledge of military matters even after serving many years in the Ministry ranges between iffy and nonexistent, the contracts that accrue almost w/o exception favour the foreign vendor (whose negotiators are all specialists in legal nuances and technical minutiae in their fields and who run circles around the noncomprehending dolts on the Indian side).

“If the BJP govt is serious about accountability and bringing all the culprits in the Agusta, Pilatus, and potentially Rafale boondoggles to book, it better not overlook their main bureaucrat facilitator(s). Seek the counsel of the attorney general about whether a serving CAG can be prosecuted, at a minimum, for his apparent malfeasance and fiduciary irresponsiblity. If as CAG he cannot be touched by law, then it is incumbent on the govt to prepare an airtight legal case against him, and to prosecute him the day he demits office as CAG, which is only a year away. If the Gandhis and ACM Tyagi & “Fratelli Tyagi” and ACM Browne (now ambassador to Norway) [for the Pilatus contract] are to be made examples of, so should the IAS officers involved in these three deals.” [ https://bharatkarnad.com/2016/05/06/bureaucrat-facilitators-of-corruption/ ]

A follow-up Aug 19, 2016 post by me concluded thus: “As stated in earlier blogs, Shashikant Sharma on his retirement as CAG in 2017, needs to be investigated for his hand in the Augusta scam, but also for the C-17 fiasco. A start has been made by the CBI fingering HC Gupta (Retd, IAS) former Coal Secretary for the scam in that Ministry during the Manmohan years. There are more important, national security, reasons for investigating Shashikant Sharma and jailing him with a stiff sentence. It will have a huge effect on bureaucrats. Unless accountability becomes the norm, the present phenomenally lax system, ultimately of financial resources mismanagement, will persist, and India willfully reduced, by its minders, to a pauper.” [ https://bharatkarnad.com/2016/08/19/boeing-c-17s-shashikant-sharma-accountability/ ]

The latest developments far from being the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” as far as holding babus — the big time corruption enablers in government, accountable may actually point to why there’ll be no end to the ongoing gigantic level scamming, now manifested most conspicuously at the state and local levels. The scale of it may be guaged from the very visible fact of, say, the phantasmagoric 20,000 sq feet house of Jaipur pinkstone built for himself in a dry and barren sub-region of Maharashtra entirely free of any other signs of development, by a minor local government functionary — a mere zilla parishad chief in Beed, Marathawada, belonging to Sharad Pawar’s ruling Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra! (Hint to the Press — motor down to Beed over bad roads in Pawar’s bailiwick, to marvel at the palace this minor Kubla Khan has built in his Xanadu!!)

Such concerns arise because of the time it took the Modi government to permit the CBI to prosecute Messrs Shashi Kant Sharma & Co., and why to-date the retired Air Chief Marshal NK ‘Charlie’ Browne has been spared the “noose” for the Pilatus contract he pushed. Perhaps, people heading the present dispensation feared that should the BJP be voted out in 2024, they may face the same music on the Rafale fighter aircraft deal. Because, as a French press investigation has revealed, payments were made by Dassault Avions to Indians whether of the political class or those in the defence procurement decision chain is not clear, despite this being touted as a “commissions-free” government-to-government deal. The results of the recent elections in UP and elsewhere apparently put such fears to rest, emboldening the Modi government to finally act on the Sharma case.

But not going after Browne (for the Pilatus) and not making an example of him along with his predecessor, Air Chief Marshal Tyagi (for the Augusta helos), however, makes no sense unless it is that the government and CBI, startled by just how deep and widespread the tentacles of corruption have reached into the military, are being extra-cautious about hauling off scores of retired military brass to jail for other defence deals, lest this “demoralise” the armed services. This is to misread the sentiment among the rank and file of the military which’s clued in, with just about everbody in each service aware of the bad eggs in the officer corps; they would be happy and relieved to see the corrupt among them get, even if belatedly, their comeuppance.

However, the trend in babu circles in government in the last two decades is not to get caught with hands in the cookie jar. But, as I detailed in my 2015 book ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’, to ensure that prospective foreign arms/product vendors pay the fees and upkeep costs for their progeny in American/West European universities and/or guarantee them high-paying jobs after they graduate along with resident visas in the US, France, UK, Sweden, Italy, etc. It does away with signing potentially incriminating documents. And the placement of sons/daughters abroad is attributed by these babus naturally to their children being very bright! For companies that lose out on this or that deal, it is small price to pay for generating “institutional” goodwill this way. It is something they can cash in on in future Indian government deals and contracts, because babus down the line come to know of foreign companies (and their host countries) that happily pay in kind for services rendered.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in arms exports, asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, civil-military relations, corruption, Culture, Decision-making, Defence Industry, Defence procurement, domestic politics, DRDO, Europe, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian democracy, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Politics, Indian state/administration, Internal Security, Military Acquisitions, society, South Asia, United States, US., Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Overdue desserts

  1. By email,
    from former ambassador to Switzerland — Smita Purshottam, ex-IFS
    Thu, 17 Mar at 1:38 pm
    So true.
    Smita Purushottam
    Founder & Chairperson SITARA (Science, Indigenous Technology and Advanced Research Accelerator)

  2. Amit says:

    Professor,

    If the Defence Secretary is responsible for the defence of India, he should be put in the spotlight more by the media and questioned regularly on progress for the things he is responsible for. This is one way public accountability can be enhanced.

    But you are right on the rot within the states as well. That is something hardly anyone pays attention to. I’ve interacted with bureaucrats and sarkaari types in Maharashtra and Karnataka. They live on a different planet altogether. Karnataka and TN are major defence hubs. I shudder to think what goes on in those corridors. The 2012 anti corruption protests had an impact at the national level. Parties like AAP have spread their tentacles across India with anti corruption as their main agenda. They are making grass roots effort in the BBMP (municipal) in Bangalore, but have not won power yet. The BJP has done reasonably well at the national level, but I’m not sure what happens in BJP states. I don’t think the state picture looks so good.

    Also agree with your comments on setting some examples with corrupt military officers.

  3. whatsintanyway says:

    True that professor

  4. email from Lt Gen JS Bajwa (Retd)
    Thu, 17 Mar at 6:04 pm

    They always got away.
    Congress put [Sharma] as CAG for ‘safe keeping’.

  5. email from Air Marshal Harish Masand (Retd)
    Thu, 17 Mar at 9:52 pm

    Bharat,

    Hope this and the other deals you mentioned get to their logical legal conclusion soon.

    Warm regards,

    Harish

  6. Gokul Kaushik says:

    Your conclusion on bribes via admission is very true!

    In a 2020 book called “Surive Survive Like a Spy: Real CIA Operatives Reveal How They Stay Safe in a Dangerous World and How You Can Too”, Jason Hanson, a CIA officer stated that one of the *most common* reasons for defection is so that the defector’s child gets admission in top US universities.

    Tweet with except from book: https://twitter.com/robkhenderson/status/1474099673665138688?s=20&t=8qkI1pNOgpccM1UgjVRc-w

  7. Debanjan Banerjer says:

    Dear Dr Karnad, Just today morning, Lt Gen Panag wrote in the print that India’s traditional conventional advantage over Pakistan is no longer there. Does it explain the rogue Brahmos launch ? Do you believe that we should be ready to jettison the No First Use (NFO) even against Pakistan as you suggest we should do for China?

    • Glad, Lt General Panag and other senior military brass, serving and retired, are finally waking ujp to the obvious — that Pakistan (1) is not a threat, and (2) has equivalent armed force to stall Indian army ops in the west! These themes have featured regularly and consistently in all my books and writings for the last 30 years! Again, as I have advocated since the 1998 tests: NFU vs Pakistan, but First Use vs China.

  8. Amit says:

    Professor,
    There was another article in the Print today about the DRDO. while it has been successful with strategic weapons, it has failed quite miserably with developing conventional weapons. Would you know why this would be and whether all the videos on YouTube showing all the new weapon systems being developed by the DRDO are mostly propaganda? (e.g., UUVs, UAVs, MPATGMs etc.). Shouldn’t the defence secretary be held accountable for delivery of these systems (apart from the defence procurement secretary)?

    • Because, Amit@, as I have been writing for decades now, unless we have all tech R&D in mission-mode as the nuclear weapons and missile programs were, it doesn’t work.

  9. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    Dear Dr Karnad, Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to have ended any discussion in the West with regards to Uyghur genocide and Xinjiang. 1. China also has played its diplomatic cards very well on that issue. Recently they invited the UN secretary general and the UN human rights commissioner to visit Xinjiang and check things for themselves.2. In addition to this, China co-sponsored with OIC recent UN resolution against Islamophoebia which was opposed by both the India and France with US and Russia abstaining. Do you feel that India should have supported that OIC led resolution as now it will be impossible for India to turn Uyghur Jihadis and TTP, BLA against China on the issue of Islamophoebia?

  10. Vidyapati Gautam says:

    Dear Sir, “However, the trend in babu circles in government in the last two decades is not to get caught with hands in the cookie jar. But, as I detailed in my 2015 book ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’, to ensure that prospective foreign arms/product vendors pay the fees and upkeep costs for their progeny in American/West European universities and/or guarantee them high-paying jobs after they graduate along with resident visas in the US, France, UK, Sweden, Italy, etc. It does away with signing potentially incriminating documents. And the placement of sons/daughters abroad is attributed by these babus naturally to their children being very bright! For companies that lose out on this or that deal, it is small price to pay for generating “institutional” goodwill this way. It is something they can cash in on in future Indian government deals and contracts, because babus down the line come to know of foreign companies (and their host countries) that happily pay in kind for services rendered.” Could you be a little specific and give us a few high-profile examples of what you described in the paragraph above? A kind of name-and-shame. If you have already written about it, it would be nice if you could share the link with is? Thanks and warm regards.

  11. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    Dear Dr Karnad, another very relevant article you have written for our time. However this is a typical post-colonial phenomenon that is visible for the whole of South Asia for countries’ elites to be beholden to their foreign interests be it the generals in Pakistan or bureaucrats and politicians in India, textiles kings in Bangladesh or tea merchants from Sri Lanka. Of course there are exceptions like Imran Khan who despite been trained in UK turned out to be having an independent mind of his own. But there are not too many like him going around in this region. What do you think on this?

  12. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    Dear Dr Karnad I believe that Mr Modi will gradually reduce our arms imports from Russia in the upcoming months and years. do you also believe so?

  13. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    Dear Dr Karnad The latest thinking from the RSS circles is that India should conquer PoK before 2024. What are your thoughts on this?

    • It was doable a while back, not anymore.

      • Gaurav Tyagi says:

        @ Professor Karnad- Infact it’s now or never. The whole world is busy watching the circus which Putin initiated in Ukraine.

        If Modi wants to be a real ‘Vishvguru’ he should reclaim the whole POK. Opportunities like this don’t come knocking everyday.

      • Amit says:

        Professor,
        If you agree on the one hand that India does not have much conventional superiority over Pakistan, then you cannot on the other hand support the capture of PoK. It makes no strategic sense. How are guts involved here? It would be suicide!

      • Amit@ — Do read, again, what I wrote in the post — “It was doable a while back [when Pakistan was non-nuclear], NOT anymore.”

      • Deepak says:

        Sir,now only option for India is to support rebels who want to establish separate Baluchistan,Pashtunistan,Sindhudesh and to wait for disintegration of Pakistan due to internal problems and establish good relationship with post Pakistan states like Bangladesh.Hostile Pakistani Punjab will remain landlocked and can be handled easily compared to now.

      • Deepak@ — Meanwhile, on the other side, Pakistanis are waiting for India to fall apart at the seams, aided or unaided! Neither will actually happen.

      • Amit says:

        Professor,
        That’s my point. If you believe there is conventional parity, you would not have thought it doable even earlier. There is also inconsistency with your earlier statements that Pakistan is no military threat to India, which implies conventional inequality.

      • Amit@ — Don’t want to go on with this, but there was conv disparity in the past, but that was then.
        Even with near parity in employable forces now, Pakistan is not a threat, because it cannot do very much with its parity in that it cannot fight a war to a favourable. decision.

  14. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    Dear Dr Karnad , just looking at the current situation in Pakistan , I believe PM Imran has tried to polarize the whole narrative there on the basis of two elements. 1. A foreign policy which suits Pakistani interests only. 2. Setting limits to how much Pakistan can accommodate when it comes to Western pressures as well as the pro-Western elites who are tethered to the West.

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