The bribery scandal related to the 2010 sale of helicopters to India by the Italian company Finmeccanica SpA is unfolding like an onion peel. Although Italy is a land of scams and despite the present case being highlighted against the backdrop of the parliamentary elections in Italy due in February, it stands to reason that this scandal may not fade away, given its wide-ranging character involving countries other than India as well.
If some sensational disclosures follow in the coming months, that is bound to cast a shadow on India’s elections as well. For sure, this Italian scandal will be closely watched by Indian politicians
for its potential in the election campaign, which is just about beginning.
Thus, Delhi has taken the necessary minimum step to order its own probe. But the scandal could have other ramifications as well. For one thing, between now and the 2014 election, the government may choose to go slow on some major defence deals that are in the pipeline.
The prominent among them is of course the so-called MMRCA deal for fighter aircraft which may go to France in a contract worth up to $16 billion. One principal aim of the visit by the French President Francois Hollande to India tomorrow is to wrap up the deal for the Rafale jets.
The unfortunate reality is that despite Defence Minister A.K.Antony’s keen agenda to clean the Aegean stables of Indian defence procurement, scandals keep erupting. There is already a campaign against Antony that he is too slow in decision-making when it comes to the awarding of defence contracts. The Italian scandal shows he probably had good enough reasons to apply brakes.
On the other hand, India also needs to cope with the feverish ongoing upgrade of military capabilities by China and Pakistan and delays can impact defence preparedness. A fine balance needs to be struck, which is where happenings like the Italian scandal would impact.
India needs a long-term solution and that is where political leadership counts. Antony promised one but with indifferent results so far. Clearly, there is no alternative for India but to follow China’s footsteps and modernize its defence production capability so that at some point in a foreseeable future, it can get rid of the arms merchants from abroad. A colossal waste of national resources is taking place because of the continuing culture to buy from abroad. India is virtually financing the economies of other countries.
Ironically, looked at another way, a slowdown in arms purchases right now may not be a bad thing to happen since the economy has slowed down and cuts in defence expenditure have become unavoidable. Indeed, Antony himself hinted as much last week.