Whether or not George Fernandes and the others are guilty of wrongdoing in defence deals, as charged by the Central Bureau of Investigation, is a matter that the courts will now have to decide. The CBI spokesman’s remark that the issue posed a “very complex” challenge of gathering evidence is itself a forewarning of sorts as to why such investigations have seldom yielded in convictions in the past. But there can be no doubt that the country has a major problem on its hand with regard to defence deals. The fact that a former Navy chief has been named as one of the accused makes the issue more piquant.
Selection of a weapons system is a laborious and complex process involving not just the technical merits of the system in question, but necessary trade-offs where countries try to palm off inferior products along with an acquisition deemed vital and urgent. There are political trade-offs made by the governments of the day deemed too sensitive to be made public. We are not arguing that either was the case in the impugned deals. Our concern is with the larger systemic problem that defence acquisitions have become. Virtually no agreement can be worked out without someone or the other being charged with some wrongdoing or the other. What this does is simply freeze the process or slow it down to the point where the country pays a huge additional price in the form of escalated cost, apart from suffering a gap in its arsenal.
It is difficult to blame the authorities or the CBI alone for this state of affairs. It is a fact that there is a class of shadowy individuals who operate on the margins of the system to influence decisions through bribery and other enticements. Ever since the Bofors fallout, they have become exceedingly clever and it has become very difficult to pin them down. The government has tried to ban their activities, and having failed, sought to regulate them, but to little avail. Currently, government efforts have focused on trying to bring more transparency into the process with a view to eliminate the darker shadows where the middle-men operate. The only way out is, of course, to be in a position to meet our defence requirements indigenously. But there, unfortunately, lies the rub.