The Congress Party must be wishing it could turn back time and make some amends. Skeletons are tumbling out of the closet on a daily basis. The ghosts of how national security took a backseat with Ishrat, how innocent people were framed for the Samjhauta blast, how Karti built a multi-crore benami empire, are among many which are now coming back to haunt them. One scam, namely the AgustaWestland scam, stands out. ‘Choppergate’ as it known, confirms a long standing suspicion that the rot within the party doesn’t stop at the minsters or at 10 Janpath’s cronies. The revelations are an existential threat to the party. One gets an idea of how serious its woes are when the reticent Ahmed Patel starts frequenting television studios.
AgustaWestland Scam: The Format
The format of the AgustaWestland scam is standard: a large company hoping to sell their product to a foreign government hires some middlemen to rub local palms and swing the deal in its favor. What makes this scam an eye-opener is the identity of those at the receiving end of the kickbacks, and the extent to which the local government swept dust under the rug.
The deal between helicopter maker AgustaWestland and the Indian Airforce was signed in 2010. The scam though came to light three years later, when the company’s CEO and the chairman of its Italian parent company Finmeccanica were arrested in Italy.
No consequence of significance was witnessed in India regarding this scam. Four of the twelve AW101 helicopters that the Air Force had ordered were already delivered when the arrests took place in Italy. The then defense minister A K Anthony ordered a probe into the charges that the Italian investigators made, and the deal was subsequently scrapped in 2014. For four years after the arrests in Italy, nothing about it was heard from the Indian side. The Congress Party claimed that the Manmohan government blacklisted the company, but this is untrue. Documentary evidence suggests that the company was blacklisted by the Modi government less than two months into its tenure.
AgustaWestland Scam: The Investigation
The investigation on the Italian side though, has gone on ever since the high profile arrests. The Indian mainstream media which is crying hoarse now, did not cover the trial of this case. Earlier this month, the Italian court announced its judgement. The AgustaWestland CEO and the Finmeccanica chairman were sentenced to four years of imprisonment each, while some executives were fined for bribery. But what the 225-page judgement also contains, are the titbits of information that the bribe-givers provided about their bribe-giving to the investigators. Some notes and letters were also recovered during the investigation, and their contents find a place in the judgement as well.
The notes exchanged between middleman Christian Michael and Peter Hullet, who was heading the company’s operations in India, reveal whom the company targeted to obtain the AW101 contract. Hullet is asked to target Sonia Gandhi’s inner circle: the then prime minister Manmohan Singh, the then second-in-command and current president Pranab Mukherjee, the then minister Veerappa Moily, the Congress Party’s chief strategist Ahmed Patel, and senior leader Oscar Fernandes. The note also mentions the then national security advisor M K Narayanan, and a certain Vinay Kumar in the defense ministry.
When it comes to the role of the then air marshal S P Tyagi, the judgement concludes that corruption did take place. According to it Tyagi intervened in favor of the company, and three of his cousins received money on his behalf. Tyagi is alleged to have tweaked the specifications set in place by the government when it decided to purchase new choppers. When Tyagi took over, the altitude requirement was lowered, making AgustaWestland eligible to bid for the contract.
AgustaWestland Scam: The Judgement
According to the judgement, the Italian middleman Haschke identified all the aforementioned Congress leaders when images were shown to him by investigators. Haschke also told investigators that six million British pounds were paid to IAF officers, while eight million four hundred thousand pounds were paid to bureaucrats and politicians. Judging by the fines the court has imposed, the total amount that the court believes was paid as kickbacks seems slightly higher. But whatever the actual amount was, the court has no doubt that kickbacks were paid.
Another interesting piece of information that has emerged from the judgement is regarding the Finmeccanica chairman, and what he attempted to do after his arrest. According to the judgement, he used the Italian leadership and diplomats to get to the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and scuttle the probe. Notes to this effect were found in his prison cell. Whether this is true, whether he managed to get to Manmohan and whether he actually scuttled the probe or not, the fact remains that the Indian government was highly uncooperative. The judgement explicitly states several times that the Indian Defense Ministry and other investigation agencies refused to help out the Italians.
AgustaWestland Scam: The Kickbacks
Now, it is well established that kickbacks were paid and that the Manmohan government wasn’t keen on taking this scam to its logical conclusion. Though Rajiv Gandhi never went to jail for the Bofors Scam, the Congress Party is well aware of the political consequences if a member of the first family gets tangled up in a mess of this nature. This is what they seek to avoid at all costs, and in their desperation it looks as if they are worsening the situation.
Three lies were peddled when the AgustaWestland revelations came to light earlier this month. One was about how they were the ones who blacklisted the company, which has fallen on its face. The second was that formal air marshal S P Tyagi continues to be associated with Vivekananda International Foundation, a think-tank Ajit Doval founded. This too, was found to be untrue. The third was about a quid-pro-quo between Narendra Modi and the Italian prime minister: an exchange of the infamous Italian marines for a favorable judgement. A basic understanding of the function of governments is enough to call the third bluff. The double standards of the Congress Party were on full display when they put forth these lies on the floor of parliament, but did not allow BJP MP Subramanian Swamy to speak after he mentioned Sonia Gandhi’s name in connection with ‘Choppergate’.
AgustaWestland Scam: Congress’s defense
The Congress Party’s accusation that the Modi government slowed down the investigation process is a joke, considering their own efforts and the Italian court’s observations. Now, they are pointing fingers at the government accusing them of allowing the company to participate in the ‘Make In India’ initiative. Maybe if the Manmohan government’s investigation had come to a conclusion, there would be grounds to discriminate against the crony capitalists in question. Of late, the entire party’s machinery has been deployed not to defend the party but to defend the matriarch. Upon Arnab Goswami’s persistent attempts to get something out of him on The Newshour, Ahmed Patel finally concede that the UPA government was responsible for the scam. However, he explicitly distanced the party from it. With the National Herald scam looming large on one side, there is a clear attempt at keeping the family at bay from this one.
From being a scam-a-day government, the Congress Party has transitioned into being a scam-a-day opposition. Two of the ‘new’ scams lead directly to the first family. After the Bofors Scam, the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress Party reduced its tally in the Lok Sabha from 401 seats to 197. One wonders the kind of impact this sort of damage can have on 44 seats.
Leave a Reply