Defence equipment for the Indian military serves an all-important cause — the security of the nation. Yet, as the present parliamentary debate over the Agusta Westland helicopter purchase indicates and the fading shadow of the Bofors howitzer case remind us, defence purchases seem to be inevitably caught up in fiscal and political chicanery of the worst kind. This is harmful to national security and undermines the credibility of the country’s institutions, political or otherwise.
Corruption, or at least a sense of corruption, follows inevitably because buying weapons is both complicated and, by necessity, partly opaque. But the Indian system makes it much worse with defence procurement structures that are among the longest and most complicated in the world. The process is started by defence ministry and military officials whose expertise in cutting-edge weapons technology is often limited. It then jumps through an endless set of hoops, each one of them vulnerable to external pressure and lobbying — whether rival defence contractors, a bevy of government agencies including in the military, the media or individual politicians.
That defence purchases are expected to serve multiple and often contradictory purposes does not help matters. A zero-corruption purchasing system would be possible if India bought only through government-to-government channels. But this would wreck the offset policy, designed to promote indigenised production and the transfer of technology. Neither of them necessarily aligns with larger strategic considerations of the country, some of which are impossible to convert into contractual language.
The response by many actors makes the mess only worse. Foreign and even Indian defence manufacturers use local agents to help navigate through these treacherous paths, but often with little ability to control the actions of the agents . The political system reacts to any corruption charge through overreaction, dumping weapon systems or ripping up contracts at enormous cost to both the country’s security and exchequer. The HDW submarine deal and even the Bofors cases were perfect examples of scandals that should have been handled by arrests and fines, but not by tossing out sound weapons and technologies.
India desperately needs to make buying arms far less treacherous, making it as transparent as possible and far less susceptible to external pressure. The government could start with working out more open statements on the country’s defence policies and strategies as this would help explain why certain purchases are important — and make them less vulnerable to politicking.