By: John Elliott

Defence corruption scandals never blow up and dominate media coverage and political intrigue for their own sake. They do not develop because the customer, neither the defense ministry nor the armed forces, wants to get a better deal or catch the real law-breakers. Nor is it because the bribes may affect the quality of the equipment, even though specifications might be fudged.

The real reason is always either that a defense company wants to stir up trouble for a rival or, as in the case of the AgustaWestland helicopter scandal that is currently dominating Indian politics, it is because politically embarrassing information has become public that one party can use against the other.

This usually happens when a scandal is being driven by events in another country. Rarely are inquiries initiated and followed through in India without being spurred on by foreign activity – in the helicopter case by recent court action in Italy involving Finmeccanica, AgustaWestland’s parent company, and in a famous Swedish Bofors gun contract during the 1980s by revelations in Sweden.

The political furor that has suddenly built up over the helicopter order illustrates many of the problems that have led India’s defense forces to be grossly ill-equipped to fight wars because the country relies on foreign suppliers for approaching 70 percent of its supplies and because most orders are endlessly delayed by bureaucratic inertia and blockages.

Most orders, it is also reasonable to assert, are linked to bribes, so scandals can be raked up wherever vested interests like. India’s long-awaited Rafale jet fighter order with France is now, as the media likes to put it, “under the scanner,” which could lead to more delays.

Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is trying, with a new defense procurement procedure, to speed up orders and to increase the proportion of equipment made in India. It also plans to penalize foreign companies found guilty of paying bribes without barring them from future work, and to regulate the controversial role of defense agents.

India’s premier political dynasty, the Gandhis, has been the focus of attention in both the Bofors and helicopter scandals. In the case of Bofors, among those named were friends of Rajiv Gandhi, then the prime minister, and of his wife Sonia, now the party leader. It was widely perceived that the Gandhis or their friends and relations had benefitted on the $1.4bn contract from some US$50 million bribes at that time’s exchange rate.

In the helicopter case, Indian names of possible recipients of bribes have been widely gossiped for a few years in private conversations and in the media – and all of course deny involvement. They range from Sonia Gandhi (named in the Italian court’s papers), and her son and heir-apparent Rahul, to Ahmed Patel, her influential political secretary, and MK Narayanan, a former national security advisor.

Shashindra Pal Tyagi, chief of air staff from 2004-2007, is also named in Italy as a recipient, partly because his cousins are alleged intermediaries for the bribes, though it is extremely unlikely that he was operating without the connivance of top political figures.

Hinting heavily that the government wants to link the bribes and Tyagi to the Gandhis, Manohar Parrikar, the current defense minister, said two days ago that the government would go after the “big fishes” who got the helicopter specifications “tweaked” during the previous Congress-led administration. “There are definitely some small fish, but there will also be some big fish. We will try and best to ensure we get to the money trail,” Parrikar told the CNN-News18 tv channel.