NEW DELHI: Arms deals involving defence government public sector undertakings that were brokered by arms dealer and middleman Sanjay Bhandari between 2009 and 2010, are likely to come on the radar of investigative agencies once Bhandari is extradited to India from London.
The aforesaid period also coincides with the time-frame when the Indian Air Force started operation of its network-centric warfare capability, Air Force Net (AFNET). AFNET is a fibre optic-based network on which the integrated air command and control system (IACCS) of the IAF is based. The AFNET was used to link IAF’s ground, air and space assets so that its officers could have complete situational awareness of the area that they wanted to secure and dominate.
The IAF started AFNET in September 2010. Last year in December, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) registered an FIR against 12 individuals, of which six were and are associated with Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) for their alleged role in the Rs 7,900 crore worth IACCS project in which private companies were given lucrative and sensitive government contracts despite not meeting the minimum criteria in lieu of monetary and other benefits.
In November last year, a London court, in its 107-page judgement, accepted the Government of India’s plea to extradite Bhandari to India where he is facing multiple criminal charges. Once he is extradited, his questioning is likely open the proverbial can of worms and indict many serving and retired top officials.
The said judgment, among other things, talked about how Bhandari opened a company, Offset India Solutions (OIS) in 2010, which was closed down some time in 2018 after The Sunday Guardian wrote on the said company continuing to function in India despite CBI and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) seeking the whereabouts of Bhandari. (Arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari’s companies function merrily, October 2018). According to official sources, Bhandari was the go-to man till May 2014 as far as securing government defence contracts was concerned.
Apart from Santech International Limited, Offset India Solutions (OIS), which was incorporated in Dubai in 2009 by Bhandari, was the primary front used by him to launder money, which he would get as commission from private companies for securing Indian government contracts for them. As per the order by the London court, Bhandari, while using these companies as front, bought multiple properties across the world, including Flat 6, Grosvenor Hill Court, Bourdon Street, London, which he bought in 2013, Flat C-303, Maurya Grandeur Residences, Palm Jumeirah, Dubai, in the year 2014 and Flat 2414, Burj Khalifa, Dubai, a property that he had purchased on 9 November 2014. And this is not an exhaustive, but a limited list of the assets that he bought.
A flat in Maurya and Burj Khalifa in Dubai costs at least Rs 12 crore each, while the flat in Grosvenor Hill Court, London can be bought for Rs 65 crore. What is likely to catch the attention of the CBI, which is investigating the alleged corruption that took place in the IACCS scam, is that many top officials, who were working with BEL during 2009-2011 when the IACCS project was in its initial phase, later joined Bhandari’s company, OIS at senior positions.
This trend, officials say, fits Bhandari’s modus operandi—that of using government officials to get lucrative government contracts for himself or his clients and then rewarding these government employees by rehabilitating them post retirement. Among those who joined OIS immediately after retirement was Naresh Kumar Sharma, who retired as Director, Marketing, from BEL in 2010. Sharma represented Bhandari’s firm in the capacity of CEO, OIS Advanced Technology Private Limited till the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate got into the picture. Sharma was appointed Director (Marketing) on the Board of Directors of the BEL in 2007 after being promoted from the post of General Manager, Ghaziabad unit. The Ghaziabad unit was the one that was handling the IAACS project.
Similarly, Chandra Prakash, who retired from a senior post from BEL and who was also involved in the first phase of IACCS, joined the OIS after his retirement. Bhandari is also an accused in the Rs 2,900 crore Pilatus aircraft deal scam in which he allegedly influenced the sale of the Swiss-made basic trainer aircraft to Indian Air Force in May 2012. The Pilatus was picked after a more than two-year selection process that spanned 2009-2012. The CBI filed an FIR in this case in June 2019 in which it named Indian Air Force officials and Bhandari as the main accused.