During his first term, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was a severe disappointment for those who had hoped to witness a paradigm shift in India’s governance. A parliamentary poll in India requires more than $3 million in expenses for a candidate to put up a fight, 95 percent of which comes from unrecorded funds, usually provided by equally shadowy entities. During his first term in office (2004-09), Singh hewed to the party line, apparently looking the other way while goodies such as coal blocks, infrastructure contracts and defence deals were inked.
But over the past month, two high-profile arrests indicate that the Prime Minister’s tolerance for the graft that is choking India’s future may have ended. Ketan Desai, an intimate of key Congress Party managers, is now in jail on charges of having accepted millions of dollars in bribes in order to give permission to set up medical colleges, while O Ravi, a senior official of the Union Home Ministry, found himself in jail for allegedly accepting a bribe of $100,000, despite his known closeness to a member of the Union Cabinet.
Clearly, political clout is no longer an insurance against administrative accountability. Those who are close to the Prime Minister accept that the present anti-corruption drive has been led ‘from the top’, but are wary of gathering political static in India’s clubby, corrupt political stratosphere, much of which is concentrated within Singh’s own Congress Party. Indeed, he and Defence Minister Arackaparambil Kurian Antony are the only two ministers known to be of modest means in the Union Cabinet, with some of the rest being mega-millionaires.
Thus far, Antony has kept his head down, not challenging the huge system of slush that has lubricated several billion-dollar defence deals, such as those involving the purchase of submarines or the refit of fighter aircraft.
Now that the Indian navy has been made to buy junk in the form of a condemned Russian aircraft carrier for close to $3 billion, a vessel that for a decade has been unable to put to sea for fear of its getting transformed into a submarine, defence lobbyists are have their sights on the impending contract for the supply of 126 front-line Multi-Role Combat Aircraft for the air force, an order expected to cross the $12 billion mark.
There are six options under consideration, with the Obama administration following the lead of the Bush-Cheney team in pitching for the obsolete F-16 platform, which India will then share with Pakistan. The Indian order would help keep this Lockheed facility operational (after nearly four decades of production) hence the incessant lobbying by the US administration that the F-16 be preferred over the far more versatile Boeing F/A -18,which is a much more attractive competitor to the present frontrunner, France’s Rafale, or to the Russian MiG 35.
While geopolitics ought to have swung the order by now to the F-16 or Business as Usual to the Rafale (with the MiG 35 a close second in this category), what is creating hand-wringing amongst defence lobbyists is the refusal of Defence Minister Antony to accept the views of the (well-oiled) machinery he heads, and opt for a quick decision.
The defence minister would like to see production outsourced to India to a considerable extent, and insure against political blockades to supplies of the kind that the US is known for, hence his refusal to follow the advice of some of his Cabinet colleagues (one of whom favours the F-16 and the other the MiG 35) and take a decision ‘in haste’. Of those in the pack, the odd aircraft manufacturer out is the Swedish Gripen. Should Antony opt for this, it could herald the beginning of a vigorous technological collaboration between the Scandinavian countries and India, a relationship that would include energy and transportation systems. However, such a coming together would be unwelcome news to the established giants of Europe, France, Italy (a giant in Sonia Gandhi’s India) and Germany, each of whom would like to keep the Nordics away from the Delhi honey pot.
Will Antony follow the lead of Manmohan Singh and crack down on large-scale corruption in his ministry? At last, the omens seem bright.