The Bofors scandal that hit the Government of India in the 1980s related to the alleged kickbacks paid to the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and others for the supply of 400 155 mm self-propelled howitzers.
The parent company of Bofors, the Celsius Group was purchased by Sweden’s Saab in 1999 and their Bofors Weapons Systems was purchased by United Defense Industries in 2000, which was acquired by British Aerospace in 2005.
And yet in India the name Bofors remains infamous and notorious, afflicting defense acquisitions by India. The result of the scandal has been such that even today, any defense deal made today is immediately called into question with allegations of corruption. “See there was nothing wrong with the gun. The gun performed very well,” says one senior army officer in the know.
“When we send a weapon or equipment for field trials we measure purely on the basis of merit. The ghost of Bofors is not at the proving grounds. The ghost of Bofors resides in South Block,” he says, referring to the office of the Indian Ministry of Defense.
Complaints are made that defense procurement by India is either held-up by bureaucrats and politicians who want to have nothing to do with a defense deal for fear of being dragged into a possible corruption scandal later and so refuse to put their name, signature or seal on any deal, or by genuinely corrupt bureaucrats and politicians who hold up any decision on a defense deal unless their own principal gets the contract.
“Normally, the technologies of products offered by different companies for a particular acquisition are usually on par, with perhaps a few differences here and there. So usually it comes down to the price negotiations. If a deal is made for a system that is not the best but perfectly adequate and suitable for our purposes, there are allegations of kickbacks since the ‘best’ product has not been purchased, even though it might be more expensive,” explains the officer.
“How it should work is the choice and purchase of equipment should be purely on merit and price to get the best deal. If after that there is corruption proved, the deal itself should not be tainted and abrogated. Instead, there should simply be harsh financial and criminal penalties for the companies and people involved,” he offers, adding, “At least this way the armed forces wouldn’t suffer from not having the right equipment when required due to the interminable delays. But this will never happen.”
“Instead what we do is we end up buying ad hoc off the shelf without a tender by switching to the Fast Track process when the requirement becomes really urgent,” he says.