HOWEVER MUCH the government may try, the AgustaWestland helicopter scandal is not going to go away in a hurry. The offer to set up a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) and push all discussion on the alleged bribes, the wheeling-dealing and the middlemen into some sort of limbo is so transparently fake that few but the UPA’s most loyal adherents are buying it. Previous JPCs have seldom yielded anything. The one on the telecom swindle — presided over by A Raja when he was telecom minister — has been meandering on, with the Congress and its allies patently stonewalling.
That apart, a JPC is not a policing agency; parliamentarians can look into a big-picture issue or a policy angularity, but they are not at the end of the day forensic investigators, financial sleuths, white-collar criminal busters and tax-haven detectives. That is the mandate of the CBI and similar organisations. It is their job, with the backing of the government and the threat to boycott and penalise not just AgustaWestland but a gamut of trade relations with Italy, that will force the authorities in Rome to support a full, fair and clear-headed investigation into the affair.
Yet, this is easier said than done. As the history of the Bofors affair makes apparent, successive Congress governments went out of their way to distract or undermine the investigation, including in the case of a former foreign minister passing a note to his Swiss interlocutors requesting them not to cooperate with other wings of the government he served. Will AgustaWestland end up the same way? One would be an optimist to guess otherwise.
If indeed a JPC needs to be appointed, it should seek to frame policies for a restructuring of India’s defence production regulations and open up the sector to private and foreign investment. It is incredible that India is willing to buy weapons from private companies overseas but not permit them to create facilities and jobs in India itself.
Repeated attempts by big and even medium-sized Indian companies and western dual-use technology giants to form joint ventures and collaborate in, for instance, precision or component manufacture or in designing software for use in the arms industry have come to naught. The expectation that these linkages — consider the flurry of MoUs signed as far back as at Defexpo 2008 — would give some Indian companies a stake in the global arms marketplace and allow their western partners an advantage in seeking orders from the Indian military have been thwarted.
Part of this is due to the policy paralysis that has crippled Indian manufacturing generally. Much of this is due to the vested interest of various echelons of the defence purchase machinery in India in keeping the current system going. Ranging from top generals to defence ministry bureaucrats to politicians and their proxies, these people have no desire to see an Indian military hardware industry blossom. It will hurt them. They are far happier to facilitate imports and take away their big commissions. Helping them along is the bottomless pit called the Defence Research and Development Organisation, which perpetuates a public-sector monopoly of India’s military manufacturing capacities.
Over nine years, despite the protestations of a new order and administrative change, the UPA government has done nothing to change this system. Almost all the biggest fixers in the New Delhi arms bazaar can trace family origins or patronage to senior members of the Congress. It is equally obvious that keeping AK Antony as defence minister was a massive camouflage. His reputation for honesty distracted the external world while others did the dirty work. A pattern has emerged as to which companies and countries benefited from the arms deals offered by the UPA government. Some vendors were unexceptionable. Other vendors and their intricate networks of agents emerged out of nowhere and grew rapidly.
What does all this add up to? India is a laughing stock. This is a country with claims of military heft and of being a regional power that imports virtually everything for its soldiers, and orders from which keep major arms companies afloat. Clearly, the crony-socialist system believes in import substitution in every area of the economy — except defence procurement.