CBI probe ordered; Opposition seeks statement

Chief of the Army Staff General V.K. Singh's charge that he was offered a bribe of Rs.14 crore for purchasing sub-standard trucks has sparked a crisis that threatens to escalate into a frontal confrontation between the military brass, the Ministry of Defence's civilian bureaucrats and the political leadership.

In an exclusive interview published in The Hindu on Monday, Gen. Singh said he was offered the bribe to clear a file pertaining to the purchase of a tranche of 600 vehicles. The Army Chief said he had informed Defence Minister A.K. Antony of the overture, allegedly made by a retired officer who now works as a lobbyist.

Even as the Ministry ordered a CBI probe into the allegation, both Houses of Parliament were adjourned minutes after the proceedings began, as vociferous Opposition members waved copies of The Hindu and demanded a statement from the government.

Mr. Antony told journalists that Gen. Singh had made a “serious allegation.” “I have taken action,” he said, before wading through a swarm of television cameras and correspondents to reach his car. He did not, however, give a clear answer as to whether Gen. Singh had in fact informed him of the bribe offer, and if the information was given in writing.

Though political and military officials were reluctant to comment on record, both sides privately traded allegations. Gen. Singh's supporters said he had, by informing Mr. Antony, complied with Section 317 of the Defence Services Regulations of 1986, which make it “the duty of every officer to bring to the notice of his superior, and if the superior is involved, then to the next superior officer, all cases of dishonesty.”

Mr. Antony's aides, however, said it was incumbent on Gen. Singh to explain why he had not acted in the year-and-half since the offer was made, by either ordering an inquiry into the affair or seeking the blacklisting of the firm.

Significantly, the Army, in a statement on March 6, accused Lieutenant-General (retd.) Tejinder Singh of offering a bribe on behalf of a company that supplies trucks. Issued in the context of separate allegations related to the alleged bugging of Mr. Antony's office, the release did not state to whom the bribe offer was made and whether action was taken.

Though the Army Chief did not name the firm involved in the bribery charge, government sources say he was referring to Tatra all-weather trucks that have been in service since 1986.

Rashmi Verma, Joint Secretary in charge of land systems in the Department of Defence Production, said the trucks were being produced by the public-sector giant Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML) under licence from Czech firm Omnipol. In 1997, BEML signed a contract with British firm Sispox for indigenisation of the trucks. “We have never received complaints about the quality of Tatra trucks.”

Opposition parties demanded that the Prime Minister and Mr. Antony come out with all information. Charging the Defence Minister with “inaction and indecision,” the Bharatiya Janata Party said Mr. Antony's style of functioning was a reflection of the sorry state of affairs of the United Progressive Alliance government.

More In: National | News