‘Save Democracy’ rally by Congress and subsequent courting of arrest by the top leadership may be a clever tactics to divert the attention from VVIP chopper deal scam but if we connect the dots of the deal it is clear that neither the party nor the leadership can escape from the questions raised by the controversial judgement of Milan appellate Court on AgustaWestland deal
Italy’s Milan city is 6,126 Km away from Delhi but the distance was minimised by a storm created because of a judgement passed by an appeal court there. The Congress already cornered on many fronts after losing the power in 2014 is confronting with the new squall which has made AgustaWestland another symbol of corruption associated with the Congress. Of course, the real issue is not only corruption but allegations against the only holding glue of the grand old party, the most powerful Nehru-Gandhi family. The verdict of Italian Court clearly mentions about hefty kickbacks being transferred to politicians, bureaucrats, defence personnel and journalists to facilitate the deal. Some names are already in public, some have also accepted the collusion in the corruption but some faces are still invisible. The slowed down investigation on the case set to get new momentum for revelation of truth which has certainly created ruckus within the Congress camp.
Timeline of the Deal
August 1999 – The Indian Air Force (IAF), which is responsible for carrying out VVIP communication duties, proposes replacement of Mi-8 helicopters due to operational constraints.
The allegations pertaining to indict nationalist forces and to save the alleged terrorists like Ishrat Jahan are not fully subsided. On this background, mention of some ‘Signora Gandhi’ in the Italian Court judgement is seen as the real reason behind the aggressive posturing of the Congress.
The flame of corruption charges in defence deals is not new for the Gandhi family. The political upheaval created by Bofors may be a part of history but allegations of close connect of the key middleman in the deal Otavio Quatrochi is still haunting the family even after his death.
Congress which was trying to present a brave face by calling for open discussion in the Parliament, attempt to stall the clarification by Defence Minister and following walkout rejecting the government position is indicative enough of what is going on in the Congress. The party may be demanding fair investigation monitored by the Court but by invoking the stand of ‘do not threaten us’ again and again, political observers believe that the party wants to play victimhood card as a face saver. An assurance from the treasury benches that ‘invisible hand’ that was guiding the action and inaction would be revealed after thorough investigation has certainly created jitters in the already shrinking party.
DEAL behind the deal
Otherwise also, defence deals are always believed to be mucky, AgustaWestland was not an exception. A story that started in 1999 with the proposal from the Indian Air Force, which is responsible for the VVIP movement due to operational constraints in existing Mi8 choppers. After twists and turns that usually takes in a defence deal, the then Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in February 2010 had signed a contract with UK-based AgustaWestland to purchase 12 AW101 helicopters for the Indian Air Force for Rs 3,600 crore. Till then the questions like who changed the specifications, why the amount was higher, who were the beneficiaries of the deal were not raised.
The first storm struck when the AgustaWestland CEO Bruno Spagnolini and Guiseppe Orsi, chairman of AgustaWestland's parent company Finmeccanica, were arrested by Italian police in February 2013 on charges of paying bribes to win the deal with the IAF. Several IAF officers including former IAF chief SP Tyagi and four companies came under the scanner. The Government consequently initiated action for termination of the contract on the grounds of the pre-contract-Integrity Pact and Agreement and finally the Crime Investigation Bureau registered FIR in January 2013.
The arrest of businessman Gautam Khaitan on allegations of kickbacks in the Rs 3,600-crore AgustaWestland chopper deal by Enforcement Directorate (ED) in September 2014 was the significant development in the case. Meanwhile, the local court acquitted both Orsi and Spagnolini in October, 2014. On April 7, 2016 when the appellate court in Italy convicted both of them for false accounting and corruption, tremors of that judgement reached to Bharat through Christian Michelle, who offered his assistance in the investigation through an interview to a TV channel.
If the judgement is to be believed, more than 30 million Euros were spent on kickbacks to the relevant decision making actors including politicians to ensure smooth passage of the deal. A note presented by Christian Michelle to the court mentioning various abbreviations related to the alleged takers of bribe and mention of one ‘Signora Gandhi’ as the driving force behind this deal has struck another shocker in the national polity.
While taking the charge on behalf of BJP, Meenakshi Lekhi on the reopening day of the Budget Session itself raised the issue during the zero hour, with special focus on kickbacks. On the basis of revelations made by Christian Michelle through the note recovered from another middleman Guido Haschke, Lekhi said it was unfortunate that media which is an organ of healthy democracy has been “misused”. “It amounts to misuse of the freedom of expression. It is irresponsible as media is part of democratic structure”, she remarked. According to that note, “The deal to purchase the 12 VVIP choppers was finalised for Rs 3,600 crore. For which total 30 million Euros are paid as kickbacks in this deal which amounts to Rs 250 crore. 6 million Euros were paid to the Air Force officers, which is roughly around Rs 50 crore. The top bureaucrats in Ministry of Defence were paid an amount of 8.4 million Euros, i.e. about Rs 75 crore. Politicians category was paid with kickbacks of 15.16 million Euros that is around Rs 125 crore.”
Lekhi also directly attacked the Congress President Sonia Gandhi who is referred as the ‘driving force’ in the Italian Court judgement. In this
context, a demand was made for
thorough investigation of the matter in Lok Sabha. In Rajya Sabha, Dr Subramanian Swamy raised the issue on the similar lines with direct mentioning of the names of the Congress leadership, which was responded with uproar by the Opposition benches.
Sonia under Scanner?
Is Congress President really indicted by the Italian Court is a matter of investigation and interpretation. During the discussion in Rajya Sabha, though Congress tried to salvage itself with articulated arguments by Abhishek Manu Singhavi and act based defence by the former minister of the department A K Antony, nobody denied that there was no corruption. The swiftness in the actions of investigation agencies suggest that the government do not want to leave any stone unturned as far as indentifying the culprits are concerned. A response to almost 5 hour long discussion by the Defence Minister himself took a tough stand and said, “A litany of omissions and commissions at various stages of the decision making process indicate malafide and corrupt actions, driven by a goal to favour a particular
vendor.” He further added that “The country wants to know who instigated, supported and benefited from the
corruption. We cannot let this pass.” Another leader on the condition of anonymity stated that, “Modi government is in no mood to shelve this issue in the cold storage. As Modi himself has nothing to hide he will not afraid to action on this matter.”
In reality, Congress was more concerned about the entry and posturing of known Gandhi family bête noire Subramanian Swamy who has been on his drive from the National Herald case itself. Understanding the uneasiness of the Congress, BJP fielded Bhupendra Yadav before Swamy who argued about the kickbacks on the basis of the CAG report without naming anybody. The task of directly attacking the Congress leadership was left to Swamy.
Like Lekhi did in Lok Sabha, Swamy also tried to bring in the name of Sonia Gandhi in the records of the Upper House on the basis of Christian Michelle’s note which has mentioned her as a ‘driving force’. He said, “(Mischelle’s) letter says that in this case a person is a ‘driving force’. That person should be interrogated.”
Congress tried its best to stall or avoid the discussion on the AgustaWestland scam. They tried to raise the alleged irregularities in the Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation (GSPC) to divert the issue. This was in hope of ‘offence is the best defence strategy’, as the allegations pertaining to GSPC are of the tenure of PM Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat.
The last hope of Legislative Business
The sources say that Congress was hopeful about government being soft to its leadership on the Augusta issue as the ruling party would like to take maximum cooperation of the opposition for clearing the legislative business during the remaining period of the Budget Session. Though party fielded best of his parliamentarians to take the onslaught head on, what transpired in the House was not as per the expectations of the Congress.
Abhishek Manu Singhavi took the baton on behalf of Congress in Rajya Sabha, thanks to his skills as an eminent lawyer, deputy leader of the House Anand Sharma, former Defence Minister A K Antony and political advisor to the Congress President Ahmad Patel were there in his support to defend the allegations against leaders. Subramanian Swamy who was the most powerful ammunition from the ruling side dealt with them almost
single-handedly. Defence Minister also gave his befitting and thorough reply without mentioning anybody’s name. That is the reason when the BSP supremo Mayawati demanded for a Supreme Court monitored investigation in the case, Congress immediately grabbed it and staged walkout from the House. According to sources, considering the wobbly state within the Congress, government may wind up the session even before the scheduled date that is May 13.
Since the AgustaWestland issue has resurfaced in through media, Congress never called for a Supreme Court monitored CBI investigation. Putting the brave face during a press conference in the Parliament, Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha Gulam Nabi Azad only mentioned about completion of investigation before the next Monsoon Session. On April 29 while talking to the journalists, he said, “We reject this malicious campaign and want to complete revelation of truth on who received the kickbacks, how much, where, when why and If government has the guts, it should come out with truth in the matter in the next two months when the Monsoon Session of Parliament will commence”. In the same press meet, he came with a pitiable logic to save his leaders and colleagues indicating the state of affairs within the Congress. He argueed that a culprit do not investigate his own crime. His argument was, “In the 37 years of my active political career I have never seen that someone who is involved in corruption ordered inquiry against the same. This can never happen.” Otherwise, this statement would have sailed but in the present context this shows a sorry face of the Leader of Opposition rather than a brave.
The history of Congress is well known. It can attain power only under the leadership of Nehru-Gandhi family. After the untimely and sad demise of Rajiv Gandhi, when Sonia Gandhi refused to take the reins of Congress, the party not only disintegrated but was thrown away from the power position. After Sonia Gandhi taking over the leadership, she became
the unifying force of the party. Congress insiders accept that on the issue of Rahul Gandhi, party gets divided on ‘old’ and ‘new’ but when it comes to Sonia Gandhi whole party speaks in one voice. Any threat to Sonia Gandhi means disturbing the comfort of many who are used to lead a Congress style life. That is the reason; any indictment or allegation on Gandhi family unites the party.
As a last resort, Congress tried to take a ‘Save Democracy’ march on May 6, 2016 to bring back discussion on Uttarakhand. Under the leadership of Sonia and Rahul all big faces of Congress participated in the protest in which while Sonia tried to play the victimhood card, Rahul as usual tried to attack Prime Minister Modi and RSS. The courting of arrest is believed to the Congress attempt of image makeover, to show activists and common people that it can still fight on the streets. While Congress was trying diversionary tactics, government in Lok Sabha presented all the documents dumped in the files of Defence Ministry. Under rule 193 when BJP MPs Anurag Thakur, Kirit Somaiya and Nishikant Dube raised questions, Defence Minister Parrikar placed all the documents related to the case in public domain. Though Congress Leader Jyotiraditya Scindia tried his best argue in defence of his leadership, Parrikar while replying to all his questions assured that ‘the investigation will unravel the final destination of kickbacks.
Whether the protest at Jantar-Mantar will provide some solace to Congress amidst the political heat generated in month of May, only time will tell. As of now it is for sure that the deal that was struck in 2010 has posed new challenge to Congress which is still grappling with the corruption charges from 2G to Commonwealth.