The miasma of corruption has never left the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. For many years now, allegations of corruption against its ministers and officials have surfaced regularly. The latest one surfaced last year in a deal involving the sale of helicopters meant to ferry senior leaders.
The deal involved the sale of 12 helicopters manufactured by AgustaWestland NV, a subsidiary of the Italian defence company Finmeccanica SpA. Italian investigators have suspected bribery in the deal for a while; on Tuesday they arrested Giuseppe Orsi, the company’s chief executive officer. Reports suggest that in their filing of a preliminary report before a court, these investigators have accused the firm of bribing Indian officials to the tune of Rs.362 crore to swing the Rs.3,600 crore chopper deal. A day later, defence minister A.K. Antony ordered a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
Perhaps this sounds cynical, but nothing much should be expected from this probe. For one, it has been known for months that the Italians were investigating Finmeccanica. This is more than sufficient time to alert any wrongdoer and ensure that evidence is erased. Even an “honest” minister—who otherwise has virtually halted defence purchases—has been unable to stem corruption, or at least allegations of it, in a ministry under his charge. It is futile to expect this government to introspect; probably all that it will do now is to undertake some damage-limitation strategies.
At this stage, probably the best thing that can be done is to annul the deal, however expensive that option may prove. After all, it is only helicopters for use by VVIPs that are being purchased and not essential equipment like artillery pieces or military aircraft for defence of the country. But at a larger level, this controversy shows how hard it is—even with a minister known for his probity at the helm—to ensure corruption-free defence deals in India. Perhaps it is time the government took a harder look at legalizing lobbying for such deals. That way, these deals will be far more transparent and the money spent on such activities will be known clearly. Currently, a ban only fuels corruption and sub-optimal choice of equipment that finally lands in our arsenal.
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