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AgustaWestland Scam: Why Is The Modi Govt Not Going After Sonia's 'Closest Advisors'?

11/05/2016 8:22 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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A Philippine Navy personnel stands in front of an AgustaWestland AW109 helicopter before it takes off during the bilateral maritime exercise between the Philippine Navy and U.S. Navy dubbed as Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT), aboard the Philippine Navy vessel BRP Ramon Alcaraz in the South China Sea near waters claimed by Beijing, Saturday, June 28, 2014. The United States and the Philippines kicked off joint naval exercises in the South China Sea near waters claimed by Beijing, amid tense territorial rows between China and its neighbors. (AP Photo/Noel Celis, Pool)

The government's stance on the AgustaWestland scam smacks of duplicity. When some questions were raised about the corrupt practices of the UK-based company and its parent body at Italy in their ₹3600 crore deal with the Indian state for the supply of 12 AW101 helicopters in 2013, the then Congress government promptly and pro-actively cancelled the chopper deal and fought an international court battle to get back all the money that had been paid to procure the first three helicopters (more than ₹2000 crores). The BJP was so happy with the government action then that it did not feel the need for a Joint Parliamentary Committee to investigate the matter, as offered by A K Antony, the then defence minister. Why is it then, after three years, that the BJP is accusing the Congress leadership of corruption in the same deal?

[W]ho, in the Indian establishment, were the bribe-takers? The Italian court has categorically indicted the then Air Force chief S P Tyagi and members of his family...

The BJP might turn around and say that it is doing so because an appeals court in Italy has confirmed the bribery charge in the AgustaWestland deal last month and has jailed the bribe-givers; it's time the bribe-takers are taken to task, the BJP says.

Fair enough - that is the way it should be.

Then the question is - who, in the Indian establishment, were the bribe-takers? The Italian court has categorically indicted the then Air Force chief S P Tyagi and members of his family (his three cousins) as the recipients of the kickback; the court did not find substantive evidence against the political leadership or the top bureaucracy of the period. It has apparently left the matter for further inquiry by the Indian investigative authorities.

In the last two years that the BJP government has been in power, the Indian investigative agencies have only reinforced the findings of the Italian high court (that S P Tyagi and his family were the prime culprits). But all this while, the ruling party has chosen to put the issue in the backburner (some attribute it to the fact that Air Chief Marshal Tyagi has been a leading figure of the Vivekananda International Foundation, a think-tank, which consistently supports the BJP (Indian Express reports in 2012 and 2013 corroborate that S P Tyagi was in the executive council of the VIF when Ajit Doval was its director).

Justice Marco Maiga, who presided over the Italian bench, said... no case could be established against Sonia Gandhi and other political leaders

But the BJP jumped into action when it got hold of some notes which the Italian prosecution had presented before their court that raised suspicions about the role of the Congress leadership. The Italian court, of course, refused to take cognizance of them as the authenticity of the documents could not be established and, more so, there was no legal evidence that inducements were offered to and accepted by the Congress leaders. (Justice Marco Maiga, who presided over the Italian bench, said in an interview to Indian news channels that no case could be established against Sonia Gandhi and other political leaders by the Italian prosecution). But the BJP leaders, both in the party and the government, are clutching at those unsigned and unverified documents to indict Congress leaders, especially Sonia Gandhi.

They insist that "Signora" Sonia Gandhi was the "driving force" behind the deal. They refer to the unsigned letter, supposed to have been written by a middleman, that says: "As Mrs. Gandhi is the driving force behind the VIP... she will not fly anymore in the MI8."

What does "VIP" mean here? Is there a problem in the translation from the original Italian language? Does it refer to the VIP chopper deal or does this just say that she is the most important person (VIP) in the government to be targeted?

It was the NDA government, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee... which first mooted the idea of more technologically advanced choppers to carry the VIPs to high altitudes.

There are several issues in the first inference. It was the NDA government, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, not the UPA government headed by Manmohan Singh, which first mooted the idea of more technologically advanced choppers to carry the VIPs to high altitudes. The Indian Air Force gave the proposal in 1999 and the Vajpayee government quickly got into the act. The operational conditions set by the Air Force then--that the helicopter should be able to fly at an altitude of 6000 metres--ordained that only the Eurocopters could be eligible to bid for the defence deal.

The then national security adviser and a close confidant of Prime Minister Vajpayee, Brajesh Mishra, took the stand that it was the PMO which must take the last call in such matters as the choppers were envisaged for the use of the VIPs like the Prime Minister and the President. He co-opted the SPG chief in the decision-making process; the committee came to the conclusion that it was very unlikely for the Prime Minister or the President to pay a visit to Kargil or Siachen (which would require a helicopter to fly at an altitude of 6000 metres). Brajesh Mishra insisted that a height of 4500 metres would suffice.

[T]o suggest that Sonia Gandhi was the driving force behind the chopper deal is to fly in the face of the facts.

But before the new tender could be floated with the changed guidelines regarding the high-altitude flying, the general elections came and the Vajpayee government fell.

The UPA government accepted the altered conditions-- carried out by the Vajpayee government--and went ahead with the tendering process. So to suggest that Sonia Gandhi was the driving force behind the chopper deal is to fly in the face of the facts.

The only other interpretation could be that Sonia Gandhi was the driving force behind the UPA government--that although Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister, it was Sonia Gandhi who was doing the back-seat driving. So the middlemen thought that the best way to put the deal on the fast track was by targeting Sonia Gandhi and her close advisers.

But then there are some issues here as well. The Italian court had not accepted the evidence; even Christian Michel, the middleman who was supposed to have written the letter, has denied writing any such note, both in an interview to the IBN News TV channel as well as the Hindu newspaper.

If the BJP thinks that Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh are culpable of choppergate, then Pranab Mukherjee cannot escape culpability. Why, then, this double-standard?

The BJP leaders have reacted to it by saying that Michel is a proclaimed offender in India and his denial should not be taken notice of. If that is the case, why are the BJP leaders setting great store in a purported note written by the same criminal?

Let us give the BJP the benefit of doubt: let us, for argument's sake, accept that what the note by the middleman said - "Mrs. Gandhi and her closest advisers should be targeted" - meant that they were to be bribed and they were actually bribed to put the deal on a fast track. And who are the "closest advisers", according to the note? Manmohan Singh, the then Prime Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, the then finance minister (and currently President of India), Ahmad Patel and Oscar Fernandes--in that order. Why is it that the BJP does not want to implicate Pranab Mukherjee, who as finance minister had also an important role in clearing the VIP chopper deal along with Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh? If the BJP thinks that Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh are culpable of choppergate, then Pranab Mukherjee cannot escape culpability. Why, then, this double-standard?

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