April 23: Delhi newspaper Headlines Today on Thursday published incriminating photographs of disgraced Indian Naval Commodore Sukhjinder Singh with a Russian woman.
As the Indian Navy gears up to decide the fate of Commodore Sukhjinder Singh — the officer who was caught in what appears to have been an elaborate honey trap in Russia — several troubling questions linger.
The questions, however, run the risk of being obscured by the scandalous episode that has embarrassed the service like nothing else in recent memory.
Through a high-level Board of Inquiry that is still in progress, the navy has quickly established that Commodore Singh, a married man, had an illicit sexual relationship with a yet unnamed Russian woman sometime in 2005- 07.
During this period he was posted as the head of the Indian observation group at Russia’s 1059 Military Station in Severodvinsk, a port city in the north- western part of the country.
Then a Captain (equivalent to a Colonel in the army), Singh was heading a 25- member team of Indian personnel overseeing the repair and refit of aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov, rechristened as INS Vikramaditya.
A CD with highly explicit photographs of Singh and the mysterious Russian woman reached the Naval Headquarters last month, immediately kicking off an inquiry.
Headlines Today has published these photographs, which were proof enough for naval investigators that these pictures were not part of a sting operation but taken with the full consent of the officer in question.
The identity of the woman in the photographs has not yet been revealed. But the fact that private photographs of her and the officer reached the navy unsolicited points to the certainty of it being a honey- trap.
Sources say Commodore Singh, who could face the harshest possible punishment for “immoral conduct” and “conduct unbecoming of an officer”, has testified to the BoI that the photographs were evidence of a “ personal indiscretion” that took place in a moment of “ very bad judgment”. He has, however, insisted that they did not impinge in any way on the price negotiations for the Russian aircraft carrier.
India recently acquiesced, after prolonged and sometimes unseemly negotiations, to cough up $ 2.33 billion for the warship instead of $ 974- million, as originally contracted in 2004.
The astonishing cost escalation sparked off a storm of criticism in Parliament and from the country’s top auditor.
Commodore Singh’s future in the navy may no longer be secure, but there are several questions still doing the rounds.
For starters, will the establishment use the episode to forever smother all uncomfortable questions about the controversial price negotiations for the warship?
Second, could the episode have been propped up to preclude any potential investigation, say by the CBI, into the intricacies of the give- and- take that resulted in the price explosion?
Finally, could this episode simply be a ploy to deflect all attention away from the possibility that there were political kickbacks at play in the deal?