There are high expectations from A.K. Antony
A.K. Antony will be a successful defence minister for many reasons. Unlike his predecessor, he will have all the time for his ministry. He is neither a political heavyweight whose council is regularly sought on government and party issues outside his ministry, nor does he head various group of ministers’ committees. His closeness to Sonia Gandhi will, however, be an advantage to his ministry. Being a first time Union cabinet minister, Antony does not carry the baggage of a veteran who must position himself as a know-all. He is likely to listen more and be less brash with service chiefs, to say the least. He will be a willing learner because he would want to prove himself. Just as the government has appointed him to send the message that murkiness in defence deals is unacceptable, he has his own reputation to guard on this issue. So, what should be expected of him? To be fair to Antony, he should be given about three months or 100 days in his ministry before he starts to deliver. Probably, the first thing that may strike him will be the need to give more leeway to service chiefs and senior military officers when interacting with the media. If India is serious about its rising global stature and believes that military diplomacy should contribute to better relations with foreign powers, it is incongruous to ask service chiefs to shut up after a few unpleasant encounters with the media.
A question that is bothering many is how Antony will react to the ongoing transformation and modernisation plans of the defence services. The first refers to restructurings, re-organisations and the need for new institutions for the services to meet fresh challenges facing them. And the second are acquisitions required by the services to fulfil allocated tasks and missions. On both counts, it can be safely said that things will not deteriorate. If anything, there is a possibility that they will indeed improve. Once he settles down in his job, Antony is likely to lead rather than follow the bureaucracy. He is expected to deliver on certain transformations that do not have political overtures. For example, a Chief of Defence Staff will remain a far cry because there is resistance from both the bureaucracy and politicians; the first will not give up powers easily and the second remains paranoid about giving too many powers to the military leadership.
This brings us to another crucial issue: Middle men in defence deals. As defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee had said that they would not be allowed, which is nigh impossible. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has taken a practical position by saying that if they are unavoidable, ways should be found to limit their activities. This will be Antony’s biggest challenge as defence minister: He will soon find out why it is difficult to cut their tentacles. For this, let’s understand the acquisition process, which is essentially in three stages. In stage one, the defence service puts out its acquisition requirement from foreign manufacturers through global tenders. At this stage, foreign company representatives (middle men) meet up with their sources (friends, as many are retired service officers) in the concerned service headquarters. The idea is to get inputs for their company to facilitate presentations that will catch the attention of the user (military top brass). Money, if any that exchange hands at this stage, is extremely frugal and nothing much to write about. The next stage is short-listing foreign companies for comprehensive user trials. Depending upon the equipment, the duration of these trials could be anything between one to three years. Meanwhile, the foreign vendors do their tie-ups with Indian private industry to be prepared to start work (transfer of technology) if they get the final contract for the equipment. It is evident that these foreign vendors have already invested finances, and will do their utmost to be the winner. At the end of user trials, the service headquarters recommend two or more competitors as being operationally acceptable to the defence ministry. This marks the beginning of stage three, the end of the involvement of military brass with the deal, and the start of big money exchanging hands during the commercial deal and the signing of the contract. Unlike the user who is concerned only with performance of the equipment, the political and bureaucratic leadership have many other considerations. These include three aspects: the cost of the acquisition package, the political implications of the deal, and the finances that the vendors give them to grease palms. Big money exchanges hands at this crucial stage, and this is what needs to be curtailed. Given the will, this is not a difficult matter. All this requires is transparency at the end of stage two. The government needs to make public the competitors that have made it to the user trials. Once this it done, the stage three would necessarily be transparent with little scope for underhand money exchanging hands. Needless to say, no political party in the government would find this acceptable. And this is the rub. Can Antony’s personal integrity outweigh his party’s requirements, is the question. In all probability, no individual, however, upright would be able to accomplish this. However, should Antony succeed he would have served his ministry and the nation best.