For the first time ever in the proud history of the Indian armed forces, a chief of any of its wings has been arrested. The arrest of former Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi in the Rs 3,767-crore AgustaWestland chopper deal case is of such magnitude that current IAF chief Arup Raha admits it has ‘dented the IAF’s reputation of being a professiol force’. All the accused have been booked for crimil conspiracy, cheating and under Prevention of Corruption Act. The CBI has charged SP Tyagi of tweaking specifics, and his cousin and other associates of pocketing 12 percent commission to favour UK-based company AgustaWestland, and that Tyagi later purchased acres of land which he didn’t declare to the Income Tax department. The deal dates back to 2002 when the then Vajpayee government began the exercise to procure helicopters for VVIPs, with the Defence Ministry floating global tenders to which 11 firms responded. AgustaWestland went out of reckoning because its choppers did not fly high enough. According to the CBI, when Tyagi took over as air force chief, the service height of the chopper was lowered from 6,000 m to 4,500 m; and that at the time of the deal, AgustaWestland didn’t even have the choppers ready to give a demonstration. Curiously enough, the deal was signed in 2010 — by which time Tyagi had been retired for three years, yet his sigture was there on the deal. Filly, when the deal raised quite a stink in parliament, the UPA government in 2013 cancelled the deal to buy the 12 VVIP choppers. Tyagi has now argued in court that the chopper specifics were changed at the behest of the Prime Minister’s Office, thereby pointing a finger at Manmohan Singh. Needless to say, this will provide enough ammunition to the present NDA government to go slam-bang against the Congress. In the backdrop of a stalled parliament due to demonetization and black money standoff, the Tyagi episode is sure to lend an extra edge to the already shrill political rhetoric.
But the likely war of words should not obscure the dark goings-on in the country’s defence deal-making. The legitimate veil of secrecy over matters of tiol security has, over the years, come to be used to cover up the rampant sleaze in sections of the defence establishment and top brass of the armed forces. The deals are huge, the process cumbersome, time consuming and exceedingly opaque. Single source contracts, uccountable and overpaid agents, obscure budgets, unfair appointments and promotions, and many other forms of corruption in the defence sector have been detailed in successive Transparency Intertiol reports. To be fair to the UPA government, its defence minister AK Anthony was known for his spotless integrity. But it ended up having the opposite effect, as defence procurement came to a standstill with Anthony putting every decision on hold. When the then army chief General VK Singh’s missive to the government about the country’s sketch defence preparadeness was leaked to the press, it triggered a raging controversy. Singh also took on the arms lobby head on, creating powerful enemies and generating much political heat. The present defence minister Manohar Parrikar deserves some credit for a no-nonsense approach, for he has been at pains to combine transparency with the will to go ahead with necessary procurements. But the time has come to clean up the entire process of defence procurement, from calling tenders to technical evaluation and trials to eventual signing of deal. This is particularly important, given Prime Minister rendra Modi’s efforts to extend his ‘Make in India’ initiative to the defence sector.