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A cover-up game

Print edition : Feb 16, 2002 T+T-

Defence Minister George Fernandes denies the Public Accounts Committee access to a CVC report that possibly points to irregular defence deals, belying his professed stance of transparency.

AFTER he first took charge as Defence Minister in 1998, George Fernandes announced amid much media hoopla that under his stewardship there would be complete transparency in defence deals. Eliminating corruption in defence deals, he said, would be among his priorities. He also announced that all major defence deals made since 1989 would be probed, for there were allegations of multi-million-dollar kickbacks. Fernandes acted on his commitment: he sent the files pertaining to 76 defence deals for examination by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) in February 2000.

Fernandes asked the CVC specifically to look into the allegations about the role of middlemen and agents in defence - any involvement by them in defence-related purchases had been banned. Central Vigilance Commissioner N. Vittal duly examined the files relating to contracts individually exceeding Rs.75 crores and submitted his report to the Defence Minister at the end of March 2001. But the report, which has reportedly pointed out instances of serious irregularities in several defence deals, has been gathering dust. The scandal that erupted in the wake of the Tehelka expose last year also showed that corruption and venality were ingrained in the defence procurement system.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament had also decided to scrutinise some of the defence deals in the wake of the public outcry over the massive arms purchases after the Kargil War. The PAC decided to look into the CVC report much before the Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) comments on some of the Defence Ministry's recent purchases were released in December last year. The Defence Ministry has been working overtime in recent weeks to rubbish the CAG's damning conclusions pertaining to the purchase of steel caskets for the martyrs of the Kargil War.

Another defence scandal is the last thing the government wants, especially when the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab are round the corner. Fernandes hence took an easy way out - he invoked the mantra of national security to deny the PAC access to the CVC report. The Defence Minister in his letter to PAC Chairman N.D. Tiwari dated January 17, said that if the CVC's report on post-1989 defence purchases was made available to the parliamentary committee, it had the potential of being prejudicial "to the interests of the state". The letter further stated that since the CVC report was based on "secret" and "top secret" documents of the government, supplied not only by the Ministry of Defence but also by intelligence agencies, it would not be in the public interest to divulge its contents.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has not even bothered to specify what action it took on the original report submitted by the CVC. The only tangible action taken by the government was to allow the re-entry of agents and middlemen into the lucrative Indian arms baazaar. The government said that the CVC's report recommended an open system for the registration of defence agents so that the procurement process could be made more transparent. The CVC is of the view that the registration of agents would help reduce the scope for corruption.

ALL major Opposition parties have strongly criticised the latest actions of the Defence Minister. The Congress(I) has demanded that the Defence Ministry immediately review its "entirely untenable" decision and make the CVC report available to the PAC. Congress spokesman S. Jaipal Reddy said that the decision of the Defence Ministry only showed that it had "a tremendous lot to hide" from the PAC. The PAC is the ultimate authority under the Constitution to look into such sensitive matters, Jaipal Reddy said. He described the Defence Minister's stand as being "highly unacceptable" and said it was similar to the one he had taken on the "Tehelka" and "coffingate" scandals. He added that the Defence Minister had changed his position from one of "unilateral transparency" to "blanket stonewalling". At the same time, Jaipal Reddy said that his party was not for turning the CVC's report into a "public" document.

The Left parties have been highly critical of the government's move. They have objected to the "selective leaks" of the CVC report by the Atal Behari Vajpayee government. The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said: "In a democratic system, defence contracts involving huge amounts of money must be transparent and accountable to Parliament. To take cover behind grounds such as 'prejudicial to the interests of the state' are untenable." The Communist Party of India in a statement said that the Defence Minister's stand was not acceptable.

It is reported that the CVC is of the opinion that constitutional provisions allow the Chairman of the PAC to see the report, even if the document is categorised as a "secret" one by the government.

Fernandes, however, is inflexible on the issue. He recently stated that Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi had held that the CVC report was a secret document and could not be handed over to the parliamentary committee.

The Left parties have alleged that the government is adopting double standards on the issue. "It is the same George Fernandes who leaked confidential documents to some persons to promote a booklet to defend himself," it was stated. There have been allegations that the Defence Minister, in a bid to defend himself from the serious charges contained in the CAG's report on Kargil-related defence procurements, provided an individual access to key Defence Ministry documents.

R.V. Pandit, a former editor and entrepreneur, who has been championing right-wing causes for many years, recently came out with a booklet attacking the CAG report and giving a clean chit to Fernandes in the "coffingate" scandal. Fernandes has vehemently denied that Pandit was given access to secret documents. But he does not deny that Pandit was given full cooperation by the Defence Ministry to produce his booklet, "The Whole Truth with all the Documents about the Aluminium Caskets bought by the Defence Ministry in 1999-2000".

The booklet, which is very critical of the media coverage on the "coffingate" scandal, gives a clean chit to the Defence Ministry and all officials involved in the scam. Pandit holds Army and Defence Ministry officials responsible for only "minor goof-ups". He has, on the other hand, castigated the media, for their coverage of the report, and the CAG. Fernandes said that "Pandit's documented story is very different from what the press published, and based on what it published, accused the Ministry of Defence, the NDA government, and me, personally, of irregularities, wrong-doing and corruption". He went on to say that Pandit's booklet, "with documents, showed that the CAG review to be not entirely factual" and that the media accounts pertaining to the CAG reports were "largely exaggerated and untruthful".

The Opposition parties have criticised Fernandes' espousal of Pandit's recent journalistic efforts. CPI(M) leader Somnath Chatterjee said that the only purpose of the booklet was to malign the office of the CAG and those sections of the media that made critical observations about the functioning of the Defence Ministry. He has written to the Prime Minister, drawing the latter's attention to the flouting of established procedures for dealing with CAG reports by Parliament.

Somnath Chatterjee wrote further: "Fernandes has in open violation of all norms and conventions sponsored Pandit to launch a frontal attack on the CAG and he has approvingly forwarded the same with a view to join in the campaign against a high constitutional authority." The veteran parliamentarian requested that the Prime Minister take appropriate action and reassure the nation that such violation of established conventions will not be permitted. He also said that the continuance of Fernandes in the cabinet has become even more "untenable". But the NDA government's priority now seems to be to silence those sections of the media that have sought to expose corruption in defence purchases. The use of state machinery to hound tehelka.com is an illustration.

Ram Jethmalani, who earlier held the Law portfolio in the Vajpayee Cabinet, described the prevailing political situation as worse than that which existed during the "emergency". He, along with another former Law Minister, Shanti Bhushan, was addressing a press conference in the first week of February, after stories started appearing in the media suggesting that the First Global, a company that has a financial stake in the "Tehelka" portal, had links with Pakistani intelligence agencies. Shanti Bhushan said that he was appalled at the government's attempts to characterise the media's efforts to expose corruption in defence deals as "anti-national activity".