Dangerous to fly Agusta too far
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar during a debate on the alleged corruption in the AgustaWestland helicopter deal last week said that he would not let this matter go the Bofors way.
Replying to the discussion, Parrikar vowed to do what “we could not do in Bofors.” Making it abundantly clear that the government investigations in the matter was not going to end at the door of former Chief of Air Staff SP Tyagi or for that matter lawyer Gautam Khetan, Parrikar said they were “small people” who “simply washed their hands in a flowing Ganga (of corruption).”
Earlier in the week, the debate on the same matter in Rajya Sabha gave enough indication that a long-drawn political battle between the ruling BJP and the main Opposition, the Congress, has just begun on the issue. In the upper house, while the Government fielded Subramanian Swamy, the best-known baiter of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, to bring up the core of its assault, the Opposition Congress too refused to cede turf.
Swamy said “The CBI has the right under Section 156 of CrPC to question the person who is mentioned in the Italian court judgment as the ‘driving force’ behind the AgustaWestland chopper deal,” and went on to add, “Before even (former PM) Dr. Manmohan Singh, she should be interrogated first by the CBI.”
Although he did not take Sonia Gandhi’s name, it was clear that “she” meant the Congress president. Later replying to the debate in the same house, Parrikar said, “The country wants to know who instigated, supported and benefitted from corruption. We can’t let this pass.”
In the counter-point given by the Congress, the essence of Congress strategy was given in the address delivered during the debate in Lok Sabha by former Union Minister Madhavrao Scindia. Stoutly defending Sonia Gandhi, he described her as a “sherni” (lioness) and said that her name wasn’t mentioned anywhere. Scindia also reiterated the line that the banning and blacklisting of companies were started by the UPA government.
Though Parrikar found a counter to Scindia’s assertion saying Antony acted only after a top official of Finmeccanica, the parent company of AgustaWestland, was arrested in Italy, the utility of the debate to soar BJP’s fast falling stock is being questioned. Politically, it would be very challenging for the BJP to create anti-Congress hysteria across the country as it happened during the Bofors case. The very rise of former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh was around the issue of corruption in the defence deals.
The first predicament lies in the credibility of the allegation. In the case of Bofors, there was VP Singh, who resigned as Defence Minister from Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet alleging corruption. In the case of Agusta, Defence Minister in UPA government AK Antony, who enjoys the reputation of possessing impeccable personal integrity, has launched a counter-attack claiming that the NDA government was patronising the blacklisted Italian company.
The second point of quandary is that the Narendra Modi government did not come to power fighting the elections on the issue of scam in the VVIP helicopter deal. Modi came to power on the basis of development agenda and the government, to the Prime Minister’s own admission before his members of parliament, has so far failed to make a fair impression on this count in the public mind.
Has that made the BJP leadership adopt the alternative line – assault the Opposition before it picks up the issue of governance failure? The strategy is so apparent in the induction of Subramnian Swamy in Rajya Sabha, where the government doesn’t have the numbers and make Maharashtra MP Kirit Somaya spearhead their attack in Lok Sabha.
The bigger question is if such strategy will bear fruit for the NDA government. History is witness that whenever the Gandhi family is down and the adversaries have tried to corner them further, they have bounced back to the centre-stage. Will AgustaWestland attack act as the elixir to revive the fortunes of Gandhi family and the Congress party? Only time will tell.
The march to Parliament last Friday with octogenarian Manmohan Singh taking to the streets and equally venerable, if not more, AK Antony taking up the cudgels to defend the Gandhis, the BJP can be assured of a fair, and at the same time, difficult fight. Adding to BJP’s woes are the adverse political perception it has suffered for its attempt to topple the Harish Rawat government in Uttarakhand.
And if the party fails to get positive results from the state Assembly elections which would be declared next week, the crisis of credibility for the BJP would only worsen. It’s in the race to form a government in just one state – Assam -- of the several states which went to polls. However, if the old war horse Tarun Gogoi once again manages to derail BJP’s attempt, the Congress would certainly find itself on an upswing.
The Congress leadership would then have the opportunity to the play the victim card to the hilt. In such a situation, Narendra Modi will need all political sagacity at his command to decide how far the BJP leadership could push the Agusta agenda. Flying it too high could make it pregnant with the possibility of a crash landing for the government and rise from the ashes for the Congress.
However, Parrikar, as he vowed before the Parliament, can firmly establish who are the big fishes to have benefitted from the scam, he would win a crucial round for his party.
(The author is President Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and Consulting Editor, Millennium Post. The views expressed are personal.)