New Delhi: Dramatic new twists emerged today in the case of the 14-crore bribe that was offered to the Army chief General VK Singh in 2010. Defence Minister AK Antony told Parliament that the Army chief had refused to take action after being offered the kickback in his own office by a retired defence officer. "I was shocked. I told him to take action, but he said 'I refuse to pursue the matter'," Mr Antony said.
It now turns out that the offer of the bribe was also recorded on tape, though it's not yet clear who organised the taping. Sources say that the tape has been delivered to the CBI, which was commissioned yesterday to investigate the matter. Sources have told NDTV that CBI officers met General Singh yesterday for his initial response on the matter. He is expected to give a detailed response on March 30, after he returns from his trip abroad.
Press Trust of India cites sources in the CBI to claim that the Army Chief can be heard shouting on the tape. But the authenticity of the tapes has yet to be tested.
Mr Antony corroborated what the Army chief had said yesterday - that after the money was offered to him, the General reported the incident to the minister. But Mr Antony, unlike the General, named the alleged lobbyist. The minister said the Army chief had told him that retired Lieutenant General Tejinder Singh had offered him the kickback. Tejinder Singh has sued the Army chief for defamation today. He also told NDTV that though he did meet with General Singh in September 2010, their conversation was limited to the chances of the retired officer being hired as the head of the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO).
A CBI inquiry was ordered yesterday by the Defence Minister after General Singh went public with media interviews about the bribe that was offered to him. The CBI investigation will swing into operation after General Singh provides a written account of what happened. Explaining why he did not commission an inquiry earlier, Mr Antony told Parliament that he had not received a written complaint from the chief. General Singh's own defence has been equally unconvincing. He said yesterday, "It was not like he was giving me bribe in my hand. This was an indirect method and that is why no arrest was made."
Mr Antony's remarks - which unsubtly push the ball back into the chief's court provide the latest expression to the strained relationship between the Defence Ministry and the Army chief.
"I will go to any extent to investigate the Army chief's allegations... all my life, I have fought against corruption" said Mr Antony, adding that he follows up even on anonymous letters that allege graft. He said he is ready to cancel any contract tainted by corruption. The BJP's Arun Jaitley responded in Parliament by saying that his party is willing to work with the government to "cleanse corruption" but he also said that it is the government's job to distinguish between frivolous and substantive charges. "There is eventually civilian control of armed forces...issues that should be settled in closed doors are becoming a public debate which in case of armed forces should be avoided," said Mr Jaitley.
That comment both underscored and reprimanded the public unraveling of the relationship between the Army chief and the Defence Ministry over the last year.
General Singh wanted Army records amended to reflect that he was born in 1951 and not 1950, which is his year of birth according to the government. The issue could have affected when he would have to retire. General Singh became the first serving military chief to take the government to court but he withdrew his petition after Supreme Court judges suggested they would not be able to rule in his favour. General Singh will step down at the end of May.
The Army in a press release earlier this month blamed Lt General (retired) Tejinder Singh for offering bribes on behalf of Tatra and Vectra, which provides trucks to the Army via a government-owned company called Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML).
General Singh said in an interview yesterday that Rs. 14 crore was offered to him to clear the purchase of 600 "sub-standard" Tatra trucks. At the time, he said, 7000 trucks were already in use by the Army. But the Defence Ministry says that the Army has never complained about the performance of Tatra's heavy vehicles.