Whether former Air Chief Marshal Shashi Tyagi is guilty of corruption in the case filed against him by the CBI is something that only the courts can decide. Unfortunately, as it happens when any VIP is involved, he has had to face the bar of public opinion, especially because of his dramatic arrest in December 2016. When he was arrested in the AugustWestland (AW) case, there was a lot of criticism from senior officers. Some felt that the evidence was insufficient to warrant his arrest, others charged that such an arrest would affect the morale of the services.
The charge that the arrest and prosecution of a service chief will affect morale is laughable. The morale of the military personnel is probably more affected by the knowledge that corruption is widespread in the defence system and almost all big defence deals, especially those relating to Europe and Russia involve corruption for which no one is ever punished.
None of us think much of the CBI, the proverbial “caged parrot”. Two former chiefs of the outfit are themselves under investigation. Like it or not, the CBI also happens to be the premier investigating agency under the laws of the land. Whatever we may feel about their processes and procedures, we have to suffer them, as many have including a former navy chief. It may be a flawed instrument, but it is the only one on hand to deal with the serious issue of corruption which plagues our defence acquisition system.
It is not unlike the relationship between the police and terrorism. Recently there was a case in which two people were acquitted of terror charges after being incarcerated for 10 years. They were not the first instance of people being framed for the serious crime of terrorism in this country. Yet there is little public anger against such blatant injustice because people fear terrorism much more. In the same way, people have been willing to bite the bullet against something as flawed as demonetisation because they believe that it will rid them of the evil of corruption. And so it probably is with the CBI’s scattershot approach to corruption in defence deals. Fortunately, for us, our courts still work, but unfortunately, very slowly.
We do not know evidence that the CBI has, but it is most likely to be based on Italian investigations. Where these have led is evident from the Milan court of appeals that sentenced two Augusta Westland officials to jail in April 2016. Mario Maiga, who had passed the judgment, told an Indian news channel that “In the judgment, we said that the family Tyagi and Shashi Tyagi received money from the two Italian accused Mr Guido Haschke and Mr Spagnolini to help AW in the deal.”
However in December 2016, the main judgement against the CEOs of Finmeccanica and AW, Giuseppe Orsi and Bruno Spagnolini was set aside by a higher court and the case set for retrial. This decision came shortly after the CBI had arrested Tyagi on evidence which it claimed included financial transactions received from abroad.
According to the April 2016 judgment papers, Tyagi did meet AW executives and Haschke while he was chief in January 2006, and a year later he met Spagnolini, Haschke and his associate Carlo Gerosa. Meeting the CEO or officials of an aviation company is one thing, but dealing with middle men like Haschke and Gerosa was questionable, to say the least. In fact, propriety demanded that the Air Chief Marshal should have avoided associating with his cousins, Sanjeev, Docsa and Sandeep, except for family affairs in the period that he was chief, because they were in the defence business.
In reality, Tyagi is just collateral damage. As Chief he may or may not have done what he is alleged to have done. But the key decisions to clinch or block a deal do not rest with him, but with the Defence Secretary, and, the Defence and Finance Ministers and ultimately the Prime Minister. It is those people that the BJP government is seeking and the CBI is doing its job.
But you cannot fault the government for trying to expose a corrupt deal, regardless of its alleged motive. It is a fact that almost no top politician has ever been charged with corruption in defence deals. What the system does is to sweep up lower-level decision-makers that include people such as Tyagi, or his cousins, and ignore the top echelon.
However, for any deal to go through, it requires a technical OK by people from the military. The question that the Services need to ask themselves is whether they have done enough to fight corruption from within. The task is not easy. The tentacles of corruption are such that proving a charge, determining wrong-doing and locating the money trail becomes an endless maze in front of the highly skilled operators who are running the system.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation