Not all corruption investigations can uncover enough evidence to proceed to prosecution, and in the case of India’s Barak 1 missile acquisition in 2000, even the help of extensive undercover tape recordings failed to secure an indictment—although it did lead to several senior figures being removed from their positions, and the resignation of the Minister of Defence. The circumstantial evidence uncovered by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) suggested strongly, however, that the acquisition program, which sought to equip India’s surface fleet with anti-air/anti-missile systems, was influenced at the selection stage to give an advantage to an Israeli consortium’s offering over an indigenously produced alternative. The links CBI drew between agents, officials, and bank accounts led to a seven year investigation that was terminated in 2013, after drawing in a former defense minister, former Navy chief, and minor party leader.
Buyer country: India
Selling Countries and Firms: Israel Aerospace Industries (Israel), Rafael (Israel)
Year of procurement decisions: 2000
7 Barak 1 Naval Surface-to-air Missile Systems
Initial Price: USD 200 million for the SAM systems, USD 69 million for the missiles
Total Bribes Paid: INR 1.74 billion alleged (USD 36.8 million, at 2000 average exchange rates)
George Fernandes – minister of defence; gave approval for the Barak 1 missile’s purchase in June 1999 and later named in investigation as a suspect.
Admiral Sushil Kumar – chief of naval staff; primary proponent for the Barak 1 missile, and named in investigation as a suspect.
Jaya Jaitly – president of the Samata Party, part of the ruling coalition in 1999; accused in the Tehelka tapes of passing on bribes. Stepped down from party position in 2002, later named in the CBI investigation.
R. K. Jain – treasurer of the Samata Party; caught on tape in the Tehelka investigation discussing bribes paid in the missile deal to Fernandes and Jaitly.
Suresh Nanda – businessman with investments in defense manufacturing in India; investigated by the CBI for acting as an illegal agent for the Israeli consortium and paying bribes to the other named individuals.
The Arms Deal
The Barak missile acquisition program originated in 1995 amidst growing Indian concern about its surface fleet’s vulnerability to Pakistani anti-ship missiles (such as the U.S.-manufactured Harpoon). The Barak 1 missile, which is marketed by Israel Aerospace Industries as a point defense system with a 10-kilometer range against air targets, was evaluated by the Indian navy in December of that year. The scientific advisor to the defense minister, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who later went on to become the president of India, and other allies at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) pushed back against the choice and sought to persuade military officials and ministers to approve a simultaneous purchase of the indigenously developed Trishul missile. Procurement decision-makers were divided; some were concerned about supply reliance on Israel while others were skeptical about the Trishul’s maturity.
The chief of naval staff of the Indian Navy, Admiral Sushil Kumar finally secured backing from Defence Minister George Fernandes, over the protest of Kalam, to purchase six Barak systems in June 1999. These were to be outfitted on the navy’s destroyers and frigates, as well as the INS Viraat, an aging aircraft carrier. In 2000, the Cabinet Committee on Security finalized this decision and expanded the order to seven units.
Corruption allegations around the deal were revealed as part of a media sting operation in 2001 (the ‘Tehelka tapes’), where R. K. Jain, Treasurer of the Samata Party, part of the ruling coalition at the time, was recorded claiming that he had acted as an agent in the deal, passing on 3% of the value each to Minister of Defence George Fernandes, and President of the Samata Party Jaya Jaitly, while Jain himself received 0.5%.
Investigation and Outcomes
In 2001, the media outlet Tehelka published the results of an undercover sting, named “Operation West End,” that approached military acquisition officials with an offer to sell fictitious hand-held thermal cameras. The sting worked its way up the acquisition chain and eventually caught on camera numerous generals, party officials, and bureaucrats accepting bribes to advance the proposed sale of the thermal cameras. In the process, Tehelka also spoke with defense procurement middlemen, including R. K. Jain, who spoke on camera about other defense deals and associated corruption.
The Tehelka investigation led to the downfall of numerous officials, but few prosecutions. Jaya Jaitly and George Fernandes were both forced to step down as a result of Jain’s claim that 3% of the costs of defense acquisitions was customarily paid out to each, while Jain himself took 0.5%. A commission was stood up under Justice K. Venkataswami to investigate compromised procedures in defense acquisition, and in February 2004 the commission’s second head, Justice S. N. Phukan, submitted its report to the government.
A change in government in 2004 led, however, to a surge in interest in uncovering the full extent of the corruption. In May 2005, the new government rejected the Phukan commission’s findings, criticizing it for limiting its scope only to determining whether proper procedure had not been obeyed while failing to investigate the allegations of corruption directly. The investigation was taken up by the CBI, which filed its First Information Report (FIR) on the matter in October 2006, thereby registering a formal case. The CBI then interviewed those involved in the deal and sought to identify whether any illegal actions had been taken in the course of the procurement program.
The FIR filed in 2006 detailed the CBI’s theories of where corruption had tainted the acquisition. Some of these theories had already been set forward in the Tehelka investigation, but were given substantially more credit after the CBI’s endorsement. First, in June 1999, when Defence Minister Fernandes approved the missile acquisition, Admiral Kumar, the navy chief, had allegedly misrepresented the objections of Kalam, the scientific advisor. Second, that objections to the Barak purchase by the DRDO were ignored, although DRDO consent for foreign acquisitions was required under the procurement procedures operating at the time.
The FIR also outlined the CBI’s main hypothesis of the means by which corruption was conducted. Suresh Nanda, an Indian businessman with investments in the defense industry, was identified in the Tehelka tapes as the agent who passed bribes to Jaitly directly. The CBI found documents from Rafael in Nanda’s possession, as well as a letter concerning an unrelated arms deal, which suggested that Nanda acted illegally as an arms broker. They also found payments from MTU Aero Engines, a German sub-contractor for IAI, to a company controlled by Nanda, as well as other payments from untraceable sources into accounts owned by other companies owned by Nanda.
Following seven years of investigation, however, the CBI was forced to drop the investigation in 2013 for lack of conclusive proof. It concluded that the claims made on tape by Jain of bribery and consequent misconduct could not be substantiated. This paved the way for India to approve the acquisition of additional Barak 1 missiles form IAI.
Aniruddha Bahal and Mathew Samuel, “Operation West End,” Tehelka.com (online), n.d., https://archive.tehelka.com/channels/Investigation/investigation1.htm.
Tarun J. Tejpal, “Sleaze, senseless greed and dirty heroes,” Tehelka.com (online), Mar. 13, 2001, https://archive.tehelka.com/channels/Investigation/tarun.htm.
Valson Thampu, “Editorial: Operation West End,” The Hindu (online), Mar. 20, 2001, http://www.thehindu.com/2001/03/20/stories/13200341.htm.
“Phukan Commission report rejected,” The Hindu (online), May 14, 2005, http://www.thehindu.com/2005/05/14/stories/2005051405150100.htm.
V. Venkatesan, “Dubious Deal,” Frontline, Vol. 23, No. 21, Oct. 21-Nov. 03, 2006, http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2321/stories/20061103001804100.htm.
“CBI vs. Suresh Nanda, criminal revision petition,” High Court of Delhi at New Delhi, decided Feb. 5, 2007, http://www.delhidistrictcourts.nic.in/Feb07/CBI%20vS.%20SURESH%20NANDA.pdf.
Neeraj Chauhan, “CBI closes Barak scandal case for lack of evidence,” The Times of India (online), Dec. 11, 2013, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/CBI-closes-Barak-scandal-case-for-lack-of-evidence/articleshow/27199226.cms.
Ramesh Ramachandran, “Defenders of the Indefensible,” Tehelka.com (online), Sep. 25, 2014, http://www.tehelka.com/2014/09/operation-hilltop-assam-rifles-tehelka-expose-defenders-of-the-indefensible.