With the AgustaWestland helicopter payoff scam now blowing up in the UPA’s face, Defence Minister AK Antony is again in the eye of a storm.
This is ironic, for Antony – St Antony to his admirers – is one of the cleanest ministers in the UPA. Never in his life has Antony ever been accused of making one dishonest rupee, and the assets he has declared show that he is the poorest in this Union cabinet – even poorer than Honest Manmohan.
However, the real tragedy of the UPA is that it has not reconciled the issue of personal honesty with institutional responsibility and probity. Which is why St Antony too deserves to be in the same doghouse as Manmohan Singh.
The question we need to ask is simple: is honesty the same as not taking a bribe for personal aggrandisement? Or is it a wider ethic? Is selling the interests of the nation down the river an act of honesty even if you haven’t personally made money from it?
Judged by a higher standard of ethics, neither Manmohan nor Antony comes off smelling of roses. Manmohan Singh did nothing to prevent A Raja’s 2G scam, or the Commonwealth Games scandal, or even Coalgate or Vadragate.
But his inability to stop what he thinks is wrong relates not only to the economic sphere, but even politics. This morning’s Economic Times says the PM was “upset” that Afzal Guru’s family was not informed in time about his impending hanging.
Let’s assume he really was “upset”. But if we assume that the hanging at least had the PM’s sanction, could he not have asked the home minister to ensure that all the norms and procedures were followed? What is the point in being upset after allowing a wrong to happen? And, even assuming Sushil Kumar Shinde did this in a solo operation, why can’t the PM sack him even now?
If Manmohan Singh’s honesty is too shallow to take seriously, Antony appears no different.
In the Agusta helicopter deal, where India signed up for 12 AW-101 helicopters for a price of €560 million, an Italian investigation has established that bribes amounting around €51 million (around Rs 368 crore at current exchange rates) may have been paid to middlemen.
Though bribery was suspected as far back as in 2009, St Antony did nothing. It is only when the Italians ended up arresting Finmeccanica CEO Guiseppe Orsi yesterday, did Antony order a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Finmeccanica is the parent of AgustaWestland.
Now why would Honest Antony, whose name is a byword of integrity, not order a probe earlier? Was it because of his extreme loyalty to Sonia Gandhi, and the fear that the mere whiff of an Italian connection in a defence deal might implicate the first family in some way?
That can’t be the case, for Antony has been less than forthcoming in several other corruption cases involving defence deals too.
It was the same with the Tatra army truck, where too kickbacks are alleged to have been paid. Last year, General VK Singh, fighting another battle to correct his date of birth, disclosed that he was offered a Rs 14 crore bribe to okay the deal, and even reported this to Antony. But Antony did not act on it till the general talked to the media about it.
There’s more. In the run-up to the 2009 general elections, a big newsbreak involved the payment of a huge “commission” in a Rs 10,000 crore defence deal involving Israel Aerospace Industries.
As we noted before, Antony’s ministry allowed the Israeli firm to bill a huge Rs 600 crore as “business charges”, and failed to kick up a storm over this clause in the agreement.
Note the timing of the deal: it was signed in February 2009, just weeks before the UPA government announced dates for the May general elections. Is it possible for any honest minister to not be aware of the contours of the commission and the deal?
Where did the commission money go? What were the business charges incurred? For a much smaller payment of Rs 64 crore, Rajiv Gandhi got himself entangled in the Bofors controversy. He could never wash off the stigma. But a Rs 600 crore payment under Antony has completely gone under the radar (Read the full story here).
This is the problem with Honest People. Like Manmohan Singh, Antony has been used by others as a shield to deflect criticism about possible corruption. But in the process, we avoid seeking honest answers from these honest people.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, writing in Antifragile, says ethics has to transcend personal probity. He proposes a new ethical rule: “If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.”
By this yardstick, St Antony needs to be decanonised.