India Today, February 25, 2013, page 8
The gap between the rulers and the ruled in still-poor India has widened to such an extent that few were surprised that the nation signed a contract to buy for its leadership a dozen British-built special helicopters whose exorbitant price tag had led even the president of the wealthy United States to reject them. Nor is there any surprise about some other facts — that what helped clinch the deal were the generous kickbacks the Italian seller proffered; that the bribes paid were eventually uncovered by foreign, not Indian, investigators; and that while Italian prosecutors were quick to make arrests, an embarrassed Indian government, true to form, has launched a wild-goose chase of bribe-takers that actually reside in its own bosom.
This scandal is just the tip of the iceberg on what goes on in defence deals and why India remains highly reliant on imports — an acute dependency that makes it vulnerable to varied external pressures, both in peacetime and war. Can there be a bigger shame for a country of 1.2 billion people than to be dependent for its basic defence needs on countries that are just a fraction of its size? For example, India has been buying arms worth nearly $2 billion dollars yearly from Israel, whose population is less than half of Delhi’s. Yet there is no evidence of discomfiture in India that it imports even rifles.
India’s real defence spending has fallen since the late 1980s, yet the government has significantly boosted spendthrift weapon imports without any strategic blueprint or direction. The result is that India has the dubious distinction of becoming the world’s largest arms importer since 2006. No less troubling is the lack of transparency and accountability in defence deals. An examination of the contracts signed in the past decade shows that most of them involved no competitive bidding, with the still-incomplete fighter-jet deal being one exception. In this light, is it any surprise that the stepped-up but unsystematic imports have failed to plug the glaring gaps in Indian defences?
Let’s be clear: The defence of India, with its self-perpetuating cycle of mega-corruption, has become the mother of all scandals — an endless golden opportunity for India’s new political aristocracy and its hangers-on to make hay while the nation bleeds. In fact, political corruption is the single biggest contributor to making the country increasingly insecure and pusillanimous in its foreign and defence policies.
The pervasive misuse of public office for private gain is eating into the vitals of the Indian republic, undercutting security, enfeebling foreign policy, and promoting corruption even in the armed forces. A country in which the corrupt and the compromised lead the governing and opposition parties can only be a soft state. In the U.S., millionaires spend their own funds to run for office, but in India, politicians seek power to become millionaires.
Make no mistake: The biggest threat India faces is not terrorism or China; it is institutionalized corruption, which undermines national security and threatens to eviscerate the republic. Those who take or engineer bribes on defence deals, in effect, are waging war on the country. They are worse than the Afzal Gurus because of the wider and corrosive impact of their actions. Yet, as the history of scams attests, they customarily go scot-free.
One way to start cleaning up the Augean stables is to impose at least a three-year moratorium on new defence contracts. This will put out of business the proliferating arms agents and cut off the kickbacks fattening India’s political nobility, the new rajas and ranis. Such a moratorium, far from having an adverse impact on national security, will actually save the taxpayers billions of dollars annually while facilitating the overhaul of defence procurement, initiation of a domestic arms-production base, and expansion of nonconventional deterrent capabilities.
Yet entrenched interests have such a huge stake in the present system that the prospect of stanching India’s bleeding without drastic reforms seems bleak. A reminder of how a corrupt India formulates a policy, only to undermine its objectives, was the 2008 move to help build a domestic arms base by requiring foreign arms sellers to plough about 30% of deal value into Indian military firms. It took just three years for the government to overturn the intent of that policy by issuing revised guidelines.
No country in history has ever become a great power by being dependent on others for basic defence needs. In fact, the capacity to defend oneself with one’s own resources is the first test a nation must pass on the way to becoming a great power. The current Indian defence policy is a recipe to continue subsidizing the military-industrial complexes of the exporting countries while keeping India perpetually insecure, timid and poor.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.
(c) India Today, 2013.