The BJP-led Union government and the opposition Congress agree on a few points in this case: That the Rs 3,727-crore deal to buy 12 AgustaWestland helicopters from Italian company Finmecchanica to ferry Indian VVIPs was steeped in corruption; that the deal was piloted by middlemen who walked away with a hefty 10.5 per cent commission; and that part of the commission was distributed in India.
Their differences arise on who got the commission. While Congress, under whose government the deal was concluded, claims that Indian officials who are being named by middlemen in Italian court may or may not have received bribe, but there is no question of any of its leaders being recipients of bribe.
The BJP and government, on the other hand, claims that some handwritten notes found during probe in Italy and the judgement in the case by the Italian court indicate involvement of top Congress leadership in this scam. Defence minister Manohar Parrikar claimed in Lok Sabha that “what the officials of the Indian Air Force got was a mere small change.” Big bucks went to the big guys here, he said.
As the two houses debated the issue, the Congress fielded former defence minister A K Antony in Rajya Sabha to counter the government’s blistering attack launched by sharp-tongued Subramaniam Swamy and the defence minister himself.
“Don’t thereaten us, don’t blackmail people. Now that corruption is proved, take action against the company, blacklist it for 10 years, don’t allow it to participate in Make in India. The bribe givers have been caught, take action against the bribe-takers,” Antony thundered in the Rajya Sabha. He asked the government to speed up the arbitration process against the company. “It can win us thousands of crores of rupees.”
Antony said “so many friends have shown so many papers. Let me also show some paper.” He referred to records in the defence ministry and claimed that the decision to replace the ageing Russian MI-16 helicoptors was taken way back in 1999 when the BJP-led NDA government was in power. Again, the Request for Proposal (RFP) was issued in March 2002 during NDA regime. And finally, the two contentious recommendations, one, about reducing the height at which helicopters could fly from 6,000 metres to 4,500 metres, and two, increasing cabin height to 1.80 metre were also made on the direction given by the then Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on November 19, 2003.
The former defence minister said that it was true that field trials for the two shortlisted helicopters were done outside the country, but added that it was a common industry practice and there was nothing unusual about it.
He said when the first media report about corruption in the helicopter deal appeared in February 2012, “the very next day we sought report from our embassy in Rome. We wrote to our mission in UK too. But when we could not get the details about the case, we filed a case… became a party in the trial that was going on in Italy. Our officers from ministry of defence, ministry of external affairs and the Central Bureau of Investigation attended every single hearing in the case.”
Antony said that when the issue was raised by the opposition parties here in India, “we offered to set up a joint parliamentary committee to probe the allegations of wrongdoing in the case. But unfortunately, the then leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, rejected our offer saying that setting up JPC would be a wasteful exercise.”
Mr Parrikar started his reply to the discussion in a lighter vein by narrating an Akbar Birbal story to show how the guilty always make a mistake that lands them in the net. He said “a litany of omissions and commissions at various stages of the decision-making process indicates mala fide and corrupt actions, driven by the goal to favour a particular vendor…the Italy court has said that there are omissions in various stages of decision making. The fact that corruption has occurred has been brought out in extensive detail in the recent judgment of the Italy court.”
As far as the investigation by CBI and ED is concerned, it is strange that the CBI which registered an FIR in the matter on 12th March, 2013 based on a reference made by the ministry of defence on 12th February, 2013 did not bother to forward a copy of the FIR to Enforcement Directorate for nine months … Even more strangely, the ED did not act on the FIR until July 2014(after the end of the UPA),” Mr Parrikar said.
He said “it appears that an invisible hand was guiding the action or inaction of the CBI and ED… The country wants to know who instigated, who supported and who benefitted from the corruption… We cannot let it pass.”
He said “the main action required is to trace, detect and unmask the means of these corrupt practices and bribery through an inquiry by the investigative agencies. This inquiry will also focus on the roles of those named in the judgement of the Italian court.”
Ahmad Patel, whose name appears in the Italian court’s judgement, said that there was an attempt to defame his party and its leaders. He said he would resign from Rajya Sabha and quit public life if charges against him were proved.
He said “forty years back, I did not leave my old mother back home to come here and get involved in scams and scandals.” He said his name appears four times in the judgement. “But I want to ask you if anywhere in the judgement my or my leader’s name has appeared as culprits, as accused. Please tell me. Even if there is an iota of charge against me I will resign from the Rajya Sabha and quit public life. But there is smoke, there has to be fire. So you find out the guilty and punish them.”
Earlier, Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi derided the government for taking recourse to “insinuations and innuendos” to “vilify the head of a political party”. He said that the government was desperately hanging on to some initials found on a handwritten note recovered from a middleman, and said that these notes and initials have no evidentiary value.
Mr Singhvi said that the Modi government was trying to foist corruption charges against those not involved and asked if this was not damaging the investigation and letting the real culprits escape.
Responding to Mr Singhvi, BJP’s Subramaniam Swamy said “Singhvi’s arguments are the same that I hear in courts. I defeated him in the Supreme Court, I defeated him in the High Court, and I hope to defeat him again in the Patiala court.”
Mr Swamy said “yes, it is true that the process to buy eight new helicopters to replace six old one was initiated during NDA regime. But the choppers should be able to fly to Siachin at 6,000 metres and should be out of reach of shoulder rockets. But the height was lowered to 4,500 metres. Whi did it? The Congress is blaming Brijesh Mishra, who they gave Padma Bhushan, second only to Bharat Ratna. And what service did he render to the Congress party to deserve such an honour? I will find out one day.”
He said by increasing cabin height from 1.45 metres to 1.80 metres the UPA government eliminated all the helicopters from the race except AgustaWestland. “This decision falls under the purview of prevention of corruption act. The minister and officials who cleared this could be prosecuted.”
Mr Swamy also claimed that in field trials instead of AgustaWestland AW-101 some other helicopter was tested. This, he said “falls under Section 420 of the CrPc. This is a fraud perpetrated on the people of India.” He said that after it became clear that Agusta helicopter would be selected they added four more and increased the order to 12. “When the price negotiation started, the benchmark for the deal or the estimated cost of the choppers was Rs 793 crore, but the CAG found that the then government offered to pay six times of the benchmark price. Who was the authority that overruled the Air Force and offered to pay six times the value of choppers. My personal knowledge is it cannot be Dr Manmohan Singh. Later, Antony said corruption had taken place in this deal. The Italian court said officers, bureaucrats and politicians were involved in corruption. Evidence Act says AP can be interrogated by the CBI. I know Manmohan Singh would not do anything personally, but he has to make it clear why he did not give documents to the Italian court. Mammohan Singh has this weakness; he takes order very easily. Another person name should also be interrogated. She should present herself before the interrogators. If they do not cooperate, there can be custodial interrogation. We will find out in the next three years who all took money and put them in the place they deserve to be.”
Mr Swamy said “Italian court proceedings said AP means political secretary; to whom, I won’t say, as people may have problem. The accused broker was shown pictures of blank, blank, blank and blank, blank, blank and asked who they were, and he named them.”
Mr Swamy’s charges led to a ruckus in the House with Congress members demanding that he be asked to authenticate and place on the table the material from which he was reading out the charges. Swamy first tried to avoid accepting the demand claiming that Abhishek Singhvi and Ghulam Nabi Azad too had quoted from documents that did not authenticate. But the Chair said that when others had quoted there was no objection raised by any member at that time. “But now objections are being raised. So I have to take action now. You must tell me whether you are authenticating and placing the documents on the table or not. If you do not authenticate and place documents on the table of the House, I will have to expunge everything you have said.” Even after this, Swamy insisted that others should authenticate first. At this point, Abhishek Singhvi authenticated and placed on the table the papers he had read from, and Swamy too assured to do the same.
Swamy continued and said that this government would take the probe to its logical conclusion and put the people who have taken bribe at the place where they deserve to be.