Defence deals, done under the thick, dark cover of national security, are notorious for their lack of transparency. As a result, decision-makers in the defence and political establishments often manage to hide the role of middlemen in swinging deals worth hundreds of crores of rupees. Bofors is India’s most famous defence scandal, with deep political and diplomatic ramifications, but it was neither the first nor the last in a long line of defence purchases that have become keywords associated with the stink of corruption in the public mind. Reports of bribery by the Italian defence firm Finmeccanica in the supply of 12 AgustaWestland helicopters for VVIP transport have thus come as no surprise. Finmeccanica and its top executives have been under investigation in Italy for months, but the Indian government chose to do nothing citing absence of specific, actionable information. With the arrest of Finmeccanica head Giuseppe Orsi, Defence Minister A.K. Antony was left with no choice but to order a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the deal. The charges against the top executives of Finmeccanica and its subsidiary AgustaWestland are specific, with the amount of bribe put at about 10 per cent of the Rs.3,600 crore deal. But the CBI, while following the money trail in India, will need to work in close coordination with the Italian investigators.
When the United Progressive Alliance government chose Mr. Antony as Defence Minister, the rationale was not that the man with a strong reputation for probity would be able to prevent corruption in defence purchases, but that he would act as a shining shield for the political establishment to deflect charges of wrong-doing. But a clean image is no guarantee for efficiency in governance. The fact that the Italians were investigating the payoffs made in the Indian deal was known last year itself but Mr. Antony was slow to act, apparently keener to avoid trouble than to find out the truth. The Bofors case was a classic instance of messed-up investigation and sloppy prosecution. The Italian chopper deal case must not be allowed to go the same way. The issue is not about the choice of specifications or helicopter, but about the kickbacks that have clearly been paid. Evidently, all manufacturers feel compelled to pay bribes disguised as commissions on a percentage basis to middlemen and lobbyists for obtaining supply orders from the Indian government. The Defence Minister needs to show some spine in going after the wrong-doers; otherwise the charges would recoil on him and his party. The efforts must not be directed at escaping blame, but in fixing accountability. A clean image is not protected by skirting around uncomfortable issues.