What's The Deal, Mr Antony?

I've been speaking to a lot of officers and soldiers over the last one year -- I mean, it's part of the job, and all defence reporters do it. One thing that's stood out in the last six months has struck me as particularly disturbing. And that's the perception of defence minister AK Antony in the eyes of the armed forces. So I did a story on Headlines Today on Thursday, and named it "Saint Antony?". It wasn't an easy story to do -- after all, Antony is a man who's credentials for honesty are popularly beyond reproach, and that's why the tentative question-mark in the story's title.

Two major deals -- deals for weapons and equipment that are critical to specific functions in the Army -- have fallen through under Antony's leadership. Just a coincidence? Possibly. But probably not. Now this is criticism that is really really difficult to give. How do you criticise an honest man absolutely obsessed with transparency and being above board. Well, maybe that's just it.

There's a perception -- and this isn't mine, but that of a large number of people in uniform -- that Antony is more obsessed with his own image self-image of being incorruptible, and not the greater good, in general. He will walk away from something if he thinks it's dirty, but it won't be because it's bad for the country, but because he does not want to be seen to have been associated with any such thing. That's the clincher. It's a fine line maybe, and possibly fine enough to have enough justification. But defence procurement is an inordinately complex process, protracted and intricate. But the trigger-happy cancellation of deals under Antony's leadership misses the main point -- equipping soldiers in harsh conditions with stuff that will stand them in better stead to not just guard the country's territorial integrity better, but their very lives as well. That's part of the point isn't it? I mean, our borders aren't (yet) guarded by robots.

It occured to me the other day that Antony is possibly even a little embarassed that he has to associate (as a job) with the whole rigmarole of weapons purchases, dirty and underhanded as it is reputed to be. Therefore, he possibly feels the need to stress transparency even more. And then, if a few deals have to be scapegoated to prove a point, so be it. I'm not for one second saying that the deals that were cancelled were not tainted or incomplete -- maybe they were -- but there's a larger point missing the Defence Ministry's thought process, and one no doubt being perpetuated by the man who currently leads it. There's a "hands-off" policy on everything that stinks even a little. Instead of engaging with the company and penalising them copiously for their faults and using their violations as a leverage towards extracting the best out of the deal for our armed forces, we blackball them (I admit, it isn't Antony who began the trend, but he's sure happy to continue it -- it certainly matches his personality).

We had a guest on yesterday on the show who said that the government's duty is to make sure that soldiers and officers are not put in harms way unnecessarily. But pushing artillery procurements back another unforgivable three years, and forcing our pilots in Ladakh to continue using rickety Cheetahs and Chetaks (both crying for replacement), the government -- and Antony -- are shortchanging men on the ground. The possibility of even one soldier having to lay down his life because he didn't have better gear makes this a dangerous and supremely tragic game.

The fact remains, however, that Antony is a good man. We need more men like him not less. I mean what would the world come to if we began scalping the few good men. But that honesty, that probity has to find a firm friend in efficiency, agility, intelligence and speed. Why can't that be? Being clean doesn't have to mean being painfully laborious and terrified of weapons procurement. Like I've said two posts ago, let's begin by showing foreign weapons companies who's really boss, and tell them that if they screw up, they pay. They don't get let off and blacklisted only to return a decade later with a clean chit. They pay. That simple.

If Antony would seriously consider morphing the procurement process to stop letter foreign firms violate norms and get away without a rap on the knuckle (despite the little talked about fact that the very process of evaluation is at huge expense even to the Indian government in the form of foreign visits, etc), he would go a long way to leave his little circle in the history of South Block. If he doesn't -- and there's a greater likelihood of this, of course -- then it's just sad. Antony is a man held in immensely high regard not just by his colleagues, but the party and Opposition too. He is non-controversial, and a genuine believer in rules. What better person to make that change? I can't think of one.

Photo ┬ęCopyright BBC

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