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Mainstream, VOL L, No 16, April 7, 2012

A Dangerous Turn

Friday 13 April 2012, by Nikhil Chakravartty



An ominous stage has been reached in Indian politics—a danger signal for our democracy. By the amazing folly of the government, the former Chief of the Army Staff has been dragged to the centre-stage of a nationwide controversy over a magnum size bribery in which the Prime Minister and people in his immediate proximity inescapably figure.

General Sundarji’s bombshell disclosure in an interview to India Today about the Prime Minister’s refusal to turn the screw on the Bofors to disclose the names of the recipients of the Rs 64 crores kickback in the deal, stunned the Rajiv establish-ment as it had so long been banking largely on the General’s preference for the Swedish Bofors howitzer gun in his last-moment switch-over from the equally high-quality French Sofina gun. In their desperate bid to ward off oritics accusing them of being responsible for the large-scale bribery in the deal, the Rajiv Government’s sup-porters had so long been taking shelter behind the plea that the Bofors deal was clinched because of the testimonial in its favour by the Army Chief.
Thus a major political scandal was sought to be covered up by publicising a top secret advice tendered to the government by the highest mili-tary officer on the suitability of a weapon for the country’s defence. This dragging in of the armed services personnel to settle scores with the Prime Minister’s political adversaries was indeed a reckless move which threatens to cause irretrie-vable damage to our democratic system.

This, in turn, brought its inevitable response from General Sundarji himself by his making

the extraordinary disclosure that while he had chosen the Swedish gun, he had also advised that the Bofors should be threatened with the cancella-tion of the deal to cough out the names of the bribe-takers—an advice which, according to him, had been angrily turned down by the Prime Minister.

While the Prime Minister’s instant response was to dismiss the General’s allegation, the Defence Ministry’s refutation came after a week of sweated labours, in which it had to confirm the Army Chief’s advice to threaten the cancella-tion of the contract to gt at the bribetakers, while providing, as expected, profuse alibis for the Prime Minister’s position. Reiterating the correct principle that the views of the Army Chief “though important, cannot alone determine national security decisions”, the Defence Ministry’s statement at the same time evaded answering the point that the Minister of State for Defence. Arun Singh, had actuallay resigned on this very issue that the Army Chief had raised. Incidentally, there would be many in the country who would be wondering what prevented General Sundarji to resort to the same course as was done by Arun Singh if he was as anxious to track down the kickback in the gun deal.

There are many other points of serious weak-ness in the government’s stand, such as its rather eloquent silence over the exposures of the bribery published by The Hindu which are supposed to have been investigated by the Prime Minister’s very own CBI having been unable to deny their authenticity.

By the latest turn of events following General Sundarji’s disclosoures and the storm that has broken over it promises to be a serious setback for Rajiv Gandhi’s prestige in the midst of a hi-fi confrontation with his political adversaries. Taking a long-range view, however, one has to concede that the crisis has assumed a new and dangerous dimension. On one hand has come the thoroughly irresponsible reactions such as that of Andhra Chief Minister N.T. Rama Rao who, in his eagerness to snub Rajiv, has come dangerously close to inciting the armed forces, and on the other, Central Minister Vengal Rao who, in his anxiety to profess loyalty to Rajiv, has cast abusive asper-sion on General Sundarji.

The Bofors kickback scandal has thus brought the Defence Services into the vortex of a sordid political controversy. There is no doubt that this is being hotly discussed in every officers’ mess today—a situation in which the armed services would be fast losing respect for the integrity of the political leadership as they have of its acumen and statesmanship in the quicksand mess in which the Indian troops have been led into in the last two years in Sri Lanka.

A time of distress for India’s democracy.

(Mainstream, September 9, 1989)

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