Former Indian Air Force chief SP Tyagi and two others have been charged by the CBI for alleged involvement in the kickback scandal over the Rs 37 billion AgustaWestland helicopter purchase. This marks an unfortunate milestone for the Indian military and the country’s governance in general: It will be the first time a serving or former military service chief has been arrested for any reason. The courts will determine the former air chief’s fate, but the event does highlight the continuing and corrosive influence of corruption within the Indian system.
The economic damage inflicted by corruption is small, but the damage done to the public belief in the integrity of institutions is enormous. Polling evidence in India and elsewhere shows that corruption raises the hackles of the average citizen more than almost any other issue, even more than poor governance or dysfunctional personalities among political leaders.
The perception of corruption is remarkably corrosive to the legitimacy of a government. One has only to look around the world to see how corruption scandals have resulted in political meltdowns in countries like Brazil and South Korea. Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept to power with an absolute majority in large part because of the venality that marked his predecessor’s regime.
Corruption in the national security sphere, however, is particularly damaging. Defence is at the heart of a government’s role in society. Unlike most other functions of the State, if the integrity of the national security system is compromised than the very existence of the country is at stake. However, the secrecy that inevitably shrouds national security decision-making, including arms purchases, also makes it a perfect arena for corruption and questionable practices.
It is no secret that Indian politicians have used big ticket weapons purchases to line their pockets and that this, inevitably, required the support of bureaucrats and men in uniform. Cleaning up weapons procurement has been part of every government’s declared ambition but the combination of secrecy and the size of the money involved has generally proven irresistible.
Occasionally, of course, a scandal does break out and often the fallout of that – a defence minister and bureaucracy too terrified to sign any contract or negotiate any deal – is often even more damaging to the country’s defences.
A certain degree of transparency needs to be brought into the defence system and some sort of independent audit and monitoring should be introduced within the system. But the core issues remain a clear sense of the country’s strategic requirements – a national security doctrine would be nice for example – coupled with a simplified procurement system that ties the weapons purchases to the doctrine. Openness and limited discretionary power remain, as in civilian life, lie at the heart of addressing defence corruption.