The road to security hell is paved with good political intentions. That is as succinct a description as possible of the decision, seemingly unilateral, by defence minister AK Antony to immediately seek a ban on the purchase of any more AgustaWestland VVIP helicopters following claims their purchase was tainted by bribery.
Whether or not the purchase was marked by dirty deeds done rather expensively is a matter that will require some probe. So far, there is still not enough corroboration in India for the claims made by the helicopter-maker’s overall Italian boss to make a sound legal judgement. What matters is that this should be set aside from the issue of the helicopters themselves and their importance to India’s national security. An assessment, independent of the bribery issue, is needed as to whether the helicopters concerned are substandard and whether blacklisting Agusta-Westland is the proper punishment given India’s security interests.
Mr Antony is reportedly concerned with maintaining his honest image — and that is understandable. Nonetheless, his portfolio is first and foremost about the defence of the country — the preservation of his image is a distant priority. Under him, the defence ministry has taken to blacklisting defence firms that are found guilty, even it seems those merely accused, of violating the integrity clauses of the purchase agreement. But the defence market is not like, say, the automobile market where there are many options with minimal differences among them. Many defence firms are monopoly makers for their products. Claims of bribery and worse are also easy because the market, by its very nature, is riddled with middlemen and secrecy.
As a consequence, India has banned so many makers of artillery in so many countries that the military now has a difficult time in finding any top-end guns. The Naresh Chandra Committee on defence preparedness pointed out that blacklisting was an over-the-top response and detrimental to the country’s national security. It recommended that other penalties — fines and personnel expulsion — would make more sense.
A certain reality needs to be acknowledged here. India’s two largest neighbours are countries with which it has waged a number of wars. There is no evidence that either will not consider taking military action sometime in the future. This is why defence is such a large portion of the budget, despite so many pressing social problems at home. India must also import the bulk of its weapons because of its continuing failure to produce anything on the home front — even army boots are bought overseas. Mr Antony himself has acknowledged this deficit, though he has yet to come up with a solution. India thus cannot afford the extreme stance of banning arms companies whose catalogue may include vital defence equipment. Other punishments have been recommended and should be considered. National security must come before ministerial pride.