It was February 1988. I was part of a group of journalists accompanying Rajiv Gandhi to Stockholm. It was snowing outside, but inside, the officials from India appeared to be sweating. The long shadow of Bofors, which had been chasing the government for some time, had reached there. It had become quite clear that the young prime minister known as Mr Clean was getting trapped in a vicious scandal. As elections got closer, the taint became darker. Needless to say, he had to ultimately give up power. The political drama didn’t stop with his government. The last Lok Sabha elections, too, were fought on the issues of the 2G and coal scams. The casualty this time was Manmohan Singh, the second Mr Clean.

Even as the political fallout was the same on both occasions, it left several questions unanswered. Did corruption really take place? If it did, why were the investigative agencies unable to take matters to a logical conclusion? After Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh, who attacked Gandhi on charges of corruption, took over as prime minister. But he failed to fulfil his promise. What was the reason for this? Seventy years after independence, we’ve seen a number of governments and incumbents come and go, but nobody has bothered to evolve norms for transparency in government. Why wasn’t this done? How can politicians who stay away from bringing in legislation such as the Lokpal fling mud at others? Do political misconduct and hypocrisy suit every party? The circumstances prevalent seem to suggest so.

Those levelling allegations against the government in the Bofors case are today in the government. The arsenal they used to slay enemies in the 1980s is now being directed at them. There are new exposes on the Rafale deal every day. Rahul Gandhi is trying to use this scandal, if it is one, as a lethal weapon during the 2019 election campaign. Whether or not that will happen is not clear. Yet, one thing is certain—the three-decade journey from Bofors to Rafale has left our defence procurement policy in tatters. This is not a good omen for a country where the international border areas are so sensitive.

Our politicians are aware that the snakes and ladders game of power politics is full of individual ups and downs. But this game can only go on as long as our borders are secure. They can’t escape the allegation that they’ve not been able to evolve a transparent defence procurement policy.

We shouldn’t forget that even as Bofors brought about the downfall of Rajiv Gandhi’s government, the gun played a big part in India thwarting Pakistan’s designs during the Kargil attack. Who knows, maybe Rafale aircraft will prove their worth as well some day. Why do those who enter Parliament choose to forget this fact? Our armed forces feel the repercussions.

If you need further corroboration, look at India’s and China’s defence budgets. In the last decade, our powerful neighbour has raised its defence spending by 440%, even as India managed growth of 147%, despite a much smaller base number. This is the situation even when the parliamentary standing panel on defence, with members from both the government as well as the opposition, has raised questions over the depleted state of equipment and preparedness of our armed forces.

Has corruption in the country stopped thanks to our ham-handed procurement policy? To the contrary, the Global Defence Anti-Corruption Index brought out by Transparency International in July showed India’s defence procurement in a bad light. This is incredible. On the one hand, those in the government are hesitant to purchase critical defence equipment out of nervousness. On the other, they don’t take meaningful steps to check corruption. Not just this, our ruling classes haven’t left our investigative agencies capable of conducting an impartial probe. The feud within the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has again brought these tensions to the surface. The turmoil within the premier investigative agency has given rise to speculation that there isn’t any agency left in the country which can be trusted with an impartial probe. The alleged involvement of the RAW in CBI’s internal feud has further complicated matters. Before this, it was senior officials of the Enforcement Directorate who were involved in a feud. The case reached the Supreme Court but the government was able to do some damage control.

One should remember that the brightest stars of the bureaucracy have been running these institutions over the years. Their decline is frightening. How can a country, whose agencies meant to fight corruption are struggling with inner battles, duly aided by its intelligence agencies, and whose defence forces are feeling the pinch of inadequate ammunition, boast of being a superpower?

Shashi Shekhar is editeor-in-chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekarkahin

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