All defence procurements provide enough ammunition to domestic politics, more explosive than perhaps the weapons. Most of the high-value defence deals are invariably referred to the investigative agencies because of allegations of corruption which makes timely procurement impossible. The nation was shocked when General VK Singh spoke about shortage of critical equipment and vital ammunitions in the army. Defence minister AK Antony has taken some immediate steps to speed up the process of acquiring vital items. But the fact is that for the past two decades or so the Indian defence forces have been living with these shortages.
In the 1990s, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence had highlighted the obsolescence of a high percentage of fighter aircraft and urged the government to take immediate steps to replace them. When General Singh said that a high percentage of the fighter aircraft has become outdated it was clear that things have not changed much during the past 20 years. The present defence committee has also pointed out that the fighter squadrons are dwindling sharply and there are critical shortages of helicopters and tank ammunitions in the army. Many years ago, just before the battle in Kargil, General Vij, who was the deputy chief of the army staff then, stated before the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament: "We are not operationally ready for a war. But then we are soldiers. If we are asked to go and fight we will do that."
The main reason for this state of affairs is that we are not capable of buying weapons in time. There used to be a time lag of 10 to 15 years before a particular weapon system was procured. Sadly, by the time we procure a weapon system, it becomes obsolete because in 10 years new systems would have come into the market. Experience shows that even the fast-track system introduced after Kargil did not help much.
What has gone wrong? One of the reasons for the procurement system almost collapsing is politicisation of defence procurement. The tag of 'scam' is attached to practically all defence deals. A major casualty is those weapons the army urgently needs.
The Bofors deal is the perfect example of this bizarre state of affairs. The Howitzer gun was finalised because of its special feature namely 'shoot and scoot'. This was acquired to counter Pakistan's telescope- fitted guns. This gun performed well in the battlefield. But all hell broke loose when a Swedish radio said that slush money was paid by Bofors for securing the Indian contract. The Indian press jumped on it and what happened thereafter is history.
Recently a section of the press reported an interview given by the Swedish investigator Sten Lindstrom on the Bofors deal. In the first place it looks very strange that the head of a team investigating a defence contract with a foreign country should go on giving interviews liberally about the nitty-gritty of the deal and speak about the involvement of the top political leadership of that country. A basic question arises here - why should a senior Swedish investigator make such accusatory references about Indian leaders and that too long after the matter is over? The circumstances show that he has been prompted by vested interests from India. He has been made to say things for which he has no credible evidence.
The Bofors case destroyed political careers and virtually put a stop to the procurement of these guns, putting India's defence preparedness in peril. The trouble is we start shooting from the hip the moment we hear unverified reports about an arms deal from a foreign source. The whole exercise then goes out of gear resulting in the ultimate cancellation of the deal. We tend to give greater credence to the conjectures and surmises of foreigners rather than the solid findings of our own investigative agencies. We must shed this slavish mentality. There should, in fact, be a national consensus on defence preparedness. It should not be left to the vagaries of adversarial politics and the machinations of busybodies.
PDT Achary is a former secretary-general, Lok Sabha
The views expressed by the author are personal