Def min orders CBI probe into army chief’s bribe offer allegation but does not address charge of purchasing substandard Tatra trucks
After two years, defence minister AK Antony on Monday was forced to order a CBI inquiry into General VK Singh’s allegation that an equipment lobbyist had offered him a bribe of Rs14 crore.
In an interview to a national daily, Gen Singh said he had reported the matter to Antony. “Just imagine, one of these men had the gumption to walk up to me and tell me that if I cleared the tranche [purchase of 600 substandard Tatra-all-terrain vehicles], he would give me Rs14 crore. He was offering a bribe to me, to the army chief. He told me that people had taken money before me and they will take money after me,” he said.
Though the general spoke of the bribe in the context of buying Tatra trucks, the defence ministry, it appears, did some clever jugglery and ordered the CBI to investigate only the bribery and not the case of purchasing substandard trucks.
Late on Monday, the CBI asked Gen Singh to file a formal complaint. The inquiry, at best, would be limited because two years have passed since the “incident”. Expectedly, Antony’s role is now in question — why did he wait for two years; why did he not act when the general told him about it. But all that he was prepared to tell the media outside Parliament on Monday was “it is a serious allegation, I have already taken action”.
That the inquiry will yield little is anybody’s guess. The issue at hand — a Rs14 crore bribe offer — happened within the confines of the army chief’s office in South Block. There was no one other than the general and the person making the offer. So, this means the larger issue — buying substandard Tatra trucks — will remain uninvestigated.
DNA had done a series of investigations in July 2011 highlighting that Tatra trucks were sold to the army at an inflated price. For over a decade, Tatra trucks were bought from the original equipment manufacturer via a London-based firm.
Bharat Earth Movers Ltd (BEML), a defence public sector undertaking, routinely imported the trucks and sold it to the army. It is surprising that BEML patronised a foreign manufacturer at a time when the Indian automobile industry had flourished. Also, using the firm as an intermediary is strange considering that the firm had nothing to do with the original manufacturer.
In 1987, BEML had signed an agreement with Omnipol Foreign Trade Corporation, then part of the erstwhile Czechoslovakia. Under that agreement, the licensor, Omnipol, was to furnish all assembly and production drawings of Tatra for `3 crore by March 1997. But 25 years later, BEML has not been able to buy the trucks on its own.
The defence procurement guidelines clearly say all purchases should be made from the original equipment manufacturer. But BEML has been dealing with Tatra Sipox (UK) Ltd, which is neither the OEM nor a subsidiary of the OEM.
But these aspects, along with the meat of the army chief’s allegations, will not be a part of the CBI’s investigations for now. Sources in the CBI told DNA that all it has been asked to look into by the defence ministry are the “claims” made by Gen Singh in the interview.
Gen Singh had also highlighted that these imported trucks lacked basic service or maintenance backup, leading to immense problems for the army and jeopardising its operational capabilities. In fact, soon after the bribe offer, Gen Singh stopped the purchase of Tatra trucks by the Indian Army.
Though the general did not name anyone in the interview, Lt Gen (retd) Tejinder Singh issued a clarification that he was not the person who met Gen Singh or offered him the bribe.
Lt Gen Singh’s name had cropped up as one of the owners of a flat in the controversial Adarsh Housing scam in Mumbai and he is believed to have been unhappy with the army chief’s tough stand against corruption.
Taking to DNA, Dharini Mishra, CBI spokesperson, said the CBI has received a letter from the defence secretary Shashikant Sharma’s office asking it to investigate the army chief’s allegations. “We are examining it and after due diligence, a preliminary inquiry would be registered, if required,” Mishra said.
The Lok Sabha had to be adjourned for the day after political parties demanded an explanation from the government. Politicians, however, made it clear that they were upset with the general for approaching the media instead of filing a written complaint asking for an investigation. Some even questioned the timing of the revelation.
Quick to defend an embattled government, Congress party spokesperson Manish Tewari questioned the army chief’s behavior. The other spokesperson, Abhishek Manu Singhvi chose a neutral posture. “It is really unfortunate. Being a government official and head of the Indian Army, he should have registered an FIR if someone came to him and offered him a bribe,” he said.
Even Team Anna had something to say. RTI activist and a key member of Anna Hazare’s core team, Arvind Kejriwal said, “We have a lot of respect for General VK Singh. He has fought a lot against corruption and probably that is why he is being targeted.”