March 24, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat

Am I as arrogant as you must have read about?" asks dismissed naval chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat after a long interview.

Bhagwat these days is more concerned about the development programmes he is involved in at Jamkhed, Maharashtra. Empowerment of women and education for villagers has infused him with a new sense of energy and purpose. He took time out to talk to Ramesh Menon about defence deals, George Fernandes and the PMO's alleged involvement in a scandal that is now rocking the nation.

Were you surprised when the defence scandal broke out?

Not at all.


It confirmed what I was saying all along. It was not just me. All knew what was happening in the defence ministry. It was all about institutionalising corruption and co-opting the armed services into the corrupt net.

What did you feel when you saw the Tehelka tapes on television?

It was a job well done and presented in such a way that people would believe what they saw.

Many have said they were not surprised at what they saw.

Many of us are escaping the real issue by saying the problem always existed. The real point is this: Look at the pace, the intensity, the spread, the magnitude, the momentum and the volume of the goings on in the arms deals in the defence ministry today. The magnitude is more than the past.

Arms dealers have become bolder and bolder. It is not a question of money changing hands but of the subversion of armed personnel. And their positioning in crucial posts. And the promotion of all those who are involved.

That really sounds terrible.

On December 10, 1998, I told the home minister that intelligence agencies were riding on the back of arms dealers. They were in key positions in the general staff. And later they would also be in field positions. History shows the havoc they have caused.

It is not a laughing matter. It is not just a Blue Label involved or a dinner in a five-star hotel. If it was just that, no one would have bothered. It is much more.

How does one put a cap on all this?

In the United States, there are very strict rules for the armed forces -- even on going for training abroad or entertaining. They do not deviate from the guidelines at all. When an appointment is up, the entire background for the last 20 to 30 years is studied. Only the most outstanding candidate gets the post. Even a minor dismeanour is a very serious matter. In my successor's case, not a single paper was seen before making him the chief.

Really, how serious is this? The question of corruption, kickbacks, middlemen, commissions et al.

The Tehelka tapes are only the tip of the iceberg. These reporters did not have the resources to reach the top. Otherwise, gross violations that this government is involved with would have come out. George Fernandes said after the tapes were out that rules were followed all the time. You see, you can have the best set of rules but if the integrity of the people manning the system is suspect, it cannot deliver.

How far is George Fernandes responsible for the state of affairs?

Corrupt people were co-opted into the sleaze by the defence minister himself. The message was 'fall in line with us.' With the result professional officers suffered. There are so many examples of how numerous good honest officers have paid a price. It is like saying come join us, we will make a deal.

The government wants to convert the armed forces just as they have converted the IPS and IAS, transferring them every few months and making them into mere rubber stamps. They are trying to subvert the armed forces.

What are the kind of pressures you faced as navy chief?

I am the kind who was not amenable to any kind of pressure. I was a professional chief who had the time only for genuine indigenisation, long time force structure plan, strategic defence review and energy security. Any chief with a backbone can do wonders. There were many who were bold and courageous before.

What did Fernandes have against you? What interests did you hurt?

I would not agree to corrupt officers being appointed. I would not agree to wholesale imports. Or imports of completely knocked down and semi-knocked down equipment. They were getting these in the name of indigenisation. How is it indigenous when we are just putting together equipment.

Fernandes did not like my insistence on building our own equipment and our own production capabilities. I wanted to get India build its own defence systems. Most naval shipyards in India have only a 50 per cent utilisation. We could make use of it. If India builds its own submarines, it will provide employment, allow ancillary units to flourish, encourage local industry and research and development.

In China, the army dominated leadership decided way back in 1978 that shipbuilding would be a springboard for industrial development. Today, China is a strong maritime nation. And India has shrunk as a maritime nation. As a peninsular nation, it is so crucial to have a good maritime presence.

We were talking of why Mr Fernandes was upset with you...

Fernandes was upset as I stopped the smuggling of arms through the sea routes. Arms were coming in from Thailand for Burmese insurgents. If it enters Burma, it could also go into the northeast and be used against Indian armed forces fighting an insurgency there. A consignment of arms caught at Port Blair was even shown to him. He just kept absolutely silent.

Was the consignment huge?

It had enough arms to tie down an entire division of the Indian army for one year.

What happened then?

All the three chiefs said nothing doing, but the shipments continued. Mr Fernandes wanted it to happen that way. Fernandes had a close link with insurgents. Earlier, the navy had always ensured that such shipments were stopped. We had done that with the LTTE, for instance.

What kind of role do arms dealers play?

They influence appointments. They bribe and corrupt the system. They become facilitators of intelligence agencies and their operation in India.

When Mr Fernandes was asked on television why he sacked you he said you should not have been navy chief even for a day.

Of course, I should not have been navy chief even for a day. Then, it would have been easier for him to subvert the armed forces. People like me can stop him. History will prove whether he was right or I was right. History has already caught up with him.

Does the PMO play a role in arms deals?

Without doubt, yes. The PMO is involved in postings, transfers, promotions. Many excellent officers have suffered because of this. We have lost some of the best logisticians like this. Both (National Security Adviser)Brajesh Mishra and (the prime minister's son-in-law)Ranjan Bhattacharya are involved.

Nothing that goes on in the defence ministry happens without the PMO knowing. There are intimate relations between the PMO and defence bureaucracy, between the PM and the defence minister. This needs no elaboration.

Let us talk about the Barak deal. Were you against it?

A professional is not for or against a deal. Building up an offensive capacity is our primary duty. We had a limited budget. The naval doctrine is to hit first and destroy enemy capability and neutralise them at a far enough distance. Any last ditch defence system does not fit in. I and Dr Abdul Kalam, scientific advisor to the PM, discussed it in great detail. A refit of the Virat would have cost us around Rs 350 crore. So I said one system of Barak was okay. But George Fernandes wanted a suitable recommendation from the naval headquarters for his approval. He then waited to reverse my decision.

What about the T-90 tank deal?

The T-90 deal was mooted earlier, but was pushed after Pokhran and Kargil. This was triggered by the import of rusting T-80 Ukraine junk tanks to Pakistan. Why should we buy junk if Pakistan is buying it? Just see what the Americans do. They keep upgrading their equipment all the time. We should do the same. Not just keep shopping all the time. The T-90 deal was not vital to India's interest.

We must remember that without an indigenous capability, we cannot have an independent foreign policy. With the secession of the Soviet Union, we have fallen into the hands of arms dealers.

Let us talk about the Sukhoi deal.

I am extremely concerned by the statement of Mr Fernandes that getting the Sukhoi is a step towards indigenisation. The import of semi knocked down equipment is a regressive step and throws mud in the eyes of the people and the Indian Parliament.

In 1996, on the last day of the 13-day Vajpayee government just before the voting hour was approaching, an emergency meeting of the Cabinet put a seal on the Sukhoi deal. At that time, the honourable defence minister was Pramod Mahajan. Let your readers decide.

By the way, the performance guarantee papers of the Sukhoi is still not with the government today.

India now wants to get the aging Russian aircraft carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov. What do you think?

The Gorshkov was offered to the Indian Navy in 1992-93. But the priority was to construct an indigenous one instead at the Cochin shipyard. This was to be a tactical aircraft carrier and funds for it was approved in 1997. The Gorshkov had been professionally vetted by three different delegations of the Indian Navy from 1995 to 1998. The last evaluation was that the baseline negotiating figure should be around $ 400 million. But with pressure from arms dealers, it went up to $ 700 million.

Is it worth it?

The ship is nearly 50 years old and it will take three years to complete. The question here is do we want to invest in strategic capabilities or do we want conventional capabilities. In any case, INS Virat will serve us for seven to ten years.

What about the Mirage deal?

The acquisition of 10 old mirages which was offered to India in 1992 was initially meant for the Jordanian Air Force but since they did not buy it, it was offered to India. The defence ministry did not respond at that time. Today, we are going to pay double the price for it.

Would you say that Mr Fernandes was involved in arms deals?

If he is not involved, he is accountable. The minister has the powers to approve up to Rs 50 crores or so. A deal can easily be split into various parts to avoid it from going to the Cabinet for approval. Tricks of the trade are common and well known to civil servants.

What is the way out?

It takes only one rotten apple to ruin the rest. It is easier to destroy than create. There is a saying in the army that if you have three bad commanding officers, you can write off the battalion.

It is possible to set it right. The US army was down and out after the Vietnam war. Drugs and corruption was rampant. But the army had outstanding chiefs who pulled them out of the crisis to become a professional armed force. Today, the United States army is a model for armed forces all over the world. It is not only because of modernisation, but because of professionalism.

Is there some solution to clean up the mess?

A massive clean up operation is needed. We need three defence chiefs who are totally dedicated to the ideals of the armed forces. They should not be yes men. We need chiefs with a backbone doing their job without allowing political interference. It will take long sustained efforts. It is not going to be easy to dislodge the system. It will need many reputed army, navy and air force chiefs to clean it up. They should be able to say No, Mr President and No, Mr Prime Minister.

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