Sindhuratna: With Saints like Antony, give me a sinner any day

If you had to make a choice between a saintly but incompetent leader and a not-so-saintly but competent one, which one would you choose?

I am asking this question in the context of yesterday’s naval mishap involving a fire on submarine INS Sindhuratna, which has seen the exit of the Navy Chief Admiral DK Joshi, who has chosen to take constructive responsibility for this and other mishaps under his watch.

According to The Indian Express, in the last six months, the Indian Navy has seen nearly 10 disasters, the worst being the sinking of INS Sindhurakshak last August after a series of unexplained blasts near the Mumbai dockyard. It killed 18 navymen.

 Sindhuratna: With Saints like Antony, give me a sinner any day

Bieng a saint has done Anthony no good: PTI

If the navy is busy sinking and damaging its own ships, who needs a navy? And do we need a saintly defence minister presiding over an accident-prone and self-destructive force of men in uniform?

We can also pose the incompetent saint question in the larger context of the last 10 years. The UPA government is headed by Honest Manmohan and the defence ministry by Saint Antony. The honest PM-cum-Topnotch Economist has presided over India's largest scams and the destruction of economic growth; the Saint has mediated over the decimation of the prestige and power of India's armed forces where we destroy our own naval vessels, where our army is fighting with itself while China occupies our territory checking for weak links, the government panics over non-existent army coups, and the air force loses more aircraft to accidents that warfare.

Nobody has ever accused Manmohan or Antony of ever taking a bribe, but honesty in one area of personal life is no good if it means letting malign influences taking control of the exchequer and playing ducks and drakes with the country's interests. In this sense, both Honest Manmohan and St Antony have been disasters - and possibly even dishonest. The chowkidar who looks the other way when the thief enters your house has no moral right to claim he didn't see the robbery - even if that is technically correct. Wilful blindness is dishonesty – and probably worse than the use of dishonest means to a desirable end.

Salman Khurshid has kicked up a storm by calling Narendra Modi impotent with reference to 2002, but fails to see the consistent impotence of the UPA government in almost every area of governance – from politics to economics.

While we can take the case against Honest Manmohan as proved beyond doubt (2G, Coalgate, CWG, and economic slowdown), especially since his own party has now dumped him, the case against St Antony the Incompetent has not been much talked about.

St Antony’s problem is not that he is honest and poor as a churchmouse, which he is, but he more that he is the mouse that doesn’t roar when it needs to.

And here, the Saint’s failings are more than clear. Consider just a few of them:

One, in the controversy over the age of the previous army chief, Gen VK Singh, Antony let the issue fester till the only outcome possible was an ugly one. Clearly, Antony did not step in to find an amicable solution by either extending his tenure according to his stated age, or getting him to exit gracefully by offering him another post-retirement option. The net result was an army corps divided on communal lines.

Two The Indian Express hinted in a 2012 story that the defence ministry went into a panic when it found that two military units were moving towards Delhi in January 2012 just when the VK Singh affair was hitting the fan. It was later shown that the panic was the result of suspicious minds in the defence ministry. This should have alerted Antony to this simple fact: that relations between civilian bosses and military officers had sunk to a new low. But instead of arresting the situation, he let things slide further.

Three: the series of naval and air force disasters (four accidents involving Sukhois) should have alerted the Saint to the dangers of not attending to festering issues of defence acquisitions and modernisation, apart from the resultant low morale of the forces.

But accident after accident – the Express counts 10 naval ones in the last six months, starting with the sinking of the INS Sindhurakshak in August 2013 – failed to alert him. In fact, budget constraints have led India to delay naval and air force modernisation and acquisition plans. The postponement of the Rafale fighter aircraft deal is one such case. This means the Indian Air Force is weaker too. There is no evidence that Antony fought tooth-and-nail to give his men in uniform the best equipment to fight with.

Four Antony made a fool of himself last August when, after the killing of five Indian soldiers on the line of control by Pakistani soldiers, he claimed that the dirty work was done by around 20 “heavily-armed terrorists along with persons dressed in Pakistan army uniforms”. A day later, he changed his story to say that “specialist troops of Pakistan army were involved in the attack…”. Clearly, the original story must have been prompted by the PMO’s need to mend fences with Pakistan, and the corrected version came after the truth could no longer be hidden. Is this what a defence minister is supposed to do?

Five St Antony does not take bribes, but the evidence is that he does not act on issues that could involve hanky-panky either. Three cases come to mind.

#1: In the Agusta helicopter deal, where India signed up for 12 AW-101 helicopters for a price of €560 million (around Rs 4,600 crore), an Italian investigation has established that bribes amounting around €51 million 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 that St Antony ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe – which will probably go nowhere. Finmeccanica is the parent of AgustaWestland. Is it possible for any honest minister to not be aware of the fact that commissions are paid in such deal?

#2: It was the same with the Tatra army truck, where too kickbacks are alleged to have been paid. In 2012, Gen VK Singh, when he was army chief, 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.

#3: 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 St Antony has completely gone under the radar (Read the full story here).

The problem with mere honesty without competence is that you can neither be honest nor deliver the right results. In an imperfect world it may not be possible to have a corruption-free defence establishment, but surely we can have a competent one where corruption is minimised and our armed forces are safe? Rajiv Gandhi may have got singed by the Bofors deal, but at least he got us the right guns – which proved their worth at Kargil.

Honest Manmohan and St Antony have just told us that if it is a straight choice between saintly incompetence plus impotence, and not-so-saintly competence, we should choose the latter.

Between a Manmohan and a Pranab Mukherjee or P Chidambaram, I would choose any of the latter two. Anyday.

Updated Date: Feb 27, 2014 12:55:06 IST