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Ajai Shukla: The cost of Antony's halo

It is hard to determine what India pays to perpetuate AK Antony's reputation for honesty, but the monetary penalty alone is thousands of crores a year

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

Sarojini Naidu famously observed that it cost India millions to keep Gandhi in poverty. It is harder to determine what this country pays to perpetuate Defence Minister AK Antony’s reputation for honesty, but the monetary penalty alone is thousands of crores per year.

Here’s how it adds up. Antony’s obsessive quest for unblemished weapons procurement has delayed the acquisition of artillery and anti-aircraft guns, fighters, submarines, night fighting gear and a host of equipment upgrades. With arms inflation at 15 per cent per annum, a five-year delay means that India pays twice what it should have. And when that equipment is obtained through government-to-government purchases and other single-vendor contracts, the cost is about 25 per cent more than it would have been in competitive bidding. Conservatively estimating that delays afflict just half of the defence ministry’s Rs 50,000 crore procurement budget, India buys Rs 25,000 crore worth of weaponry for 125 per cent more than what it should have paid.

Over and above that figure is the cost to national prestige and the devaluation of India’s military deterrent when — as in the wake of the 26/11 terror strikes in Mumbai — India’s armed forces are unprepared for immediate strikes. That happened on Antony’s watch.

To inconvenient questions about procurement delays, Antony declares that “India is a democracy” and “we have to ensure full transparency”. Point out to him that many democracies manage timely procurement in a transparent manner, and you will get a patronising, “Don’t worry, we are doing all that is necessary to safeguard the security of the country.”

After five years of insensibility to Antony’s disastrous custodianship of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Congress party seems to be realising that in India’s deteriorating security environment, Antony’s functioning might leave the party with having to account for a military embarrassment. Last week, Congress party spokesperson Manish Tewari wrote an piece in a national daily, arguing for all the changes that Antony has assiduously blocked during his five disastrous years in office.

Tewari called for “reforms that are visionary”; treating Indian private industry on a par with the public sector; and “drastically retooling” the Department of Defence Production. Though qualified as his personal views, the article represented growing within the Congress party.

Is it fair, Antony’s defenders will ask, to pin the blame entirely on him? After all, George Fernandes had publicly declared that fear of the three C’s — the CAG, the CVC and the CBI — held back MoD bureaucrats from making decisions. But Antony, like no other defence minister before him, endangers national security by his otherwise laudable fetish for probity. The message that flows out of Antony’s office and seeps through the procurement department is: cancel an ongoing procurement at the first hint of irregularity. It does not matter whether the suspicion has been planted by a rival arms dealer; a paid-for Parliamentary question; or a letter from an MP which has clearly been dictated by someone who possesses every detail of the tender in question. Just put the process on indefinite hold.

One MoD official asked me: Point out one official who has been punished for delaying the procurement of even the most vitally needed equipment. But if I am seen to move a file quickly, the defence minister’s office will ask, “What is the hurry. It seems almost as if you have a stake in that deal.”

Then there is Antony’s obvious bewilderment about the technical issues of the military, a crashing ignorance that cannot be condoned in India’s top military decision-maker. Antony’s apologists cite his preoccupation with party matters; but that is hardly convincing. His predecessor, Pranab Mukherjee, who had an immeasurably larger role in the party and national affairs, handled the MoD with skill and knowledge.

At a lunch, three years ago, I asked the Australian defence minister why his air force was buying F/A-18F Super Hornet fighters when Australia was already in line for the futuristic F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which was nearing completion. His answer: Australia’s ageing F-111 fighters would be retiring in 2010; since the F-35 project was running a couple of years late, 24 new Super Hornets would be inducted to retain Australian capability. (The Super Hornets are reaching Australia next month.)

Contrast that urgency with Antony’s “we-will-consider” approach, even though India faces a greater chance of military confrontation with Pakistan or China than Australia does with New Zealand or Papua and New Guinea.

Antony’s personal image and goals are damaging national security and the image of his party. If electoral seat adjustment and managing state-level dissidence is his particular skill, let him move out of that crucial corner office in South Block and give him a place in the Congress party office.

After Neville Chamberlain had miserably failed to reign in Hitler in 1939, British MP Leo Amery echoed the words of Oliver Cromwell in calling for Chamberlain’s head at a memorable session of the British Parliament: “You have sat here too long for any good you are doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

Mr Antony?

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First Published: Tue, February 23 2010. 00:18 IST