Probes rarely lead to real beneficiaries
The Rs 3546 crore Agusta-Westland contract, signed in 2010 to purchase 12 Anglo-Italian AW101 helicopters for the Indian Air Force to ferry VIPs like the President and the Prime Minister, has revived the ghost of the 21 British Westland helicopters purchased by late Rajiv Gandhi’s government in 1985 for PSU carrier Pawan Hans. Similar to the Agusta-Westland deal allegedly involving the Italians and Indian bigwigs, including Sonia Gandhi, the earlier Westland deal involved the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Rajiv Gandhi.
Margaret Thatcher had successfully persuaded Rajiv Gandhi to buy the sub-standard British-made helicopters, several of which crashed in the Arabian sea off Mumbai coast, Vaishno Devi hills and Nagaland. While ONGC had hired half a dozen Westland helicopters for flying its personnel to Bombay high drilling operations, Jammu and Kashmir’s tourism department deployed them for ferrying pilgrims to Vaishno Devi shrines. Nagaland had hired one of these machines for state government use. Thatcher sold the killer flying machines diverting 65 million pounds of British aid meant for India to bail out the dying Westland helicopter company, which belonged to a close relative. Rajiv Gandhi’s fault was that he obliged Thatcher without knowing the fact that he was buying a technically inferior machine.
Like the Italy-India imbroglio now over the rechristened Agusta-Westland helicopters, the then Indo-British Westland deal created convulsions in both countries. Both the Indian Parliament and the British House of Commons then witnessed furore amid heated charges and countercharges. While the Opposition in the British Parliament accused Thatcher of corruption by bailing out her relative’s company using British aid money to India, Rajiv faced the Opposition’s ire for buying junk machines that killed many people.
The irony cannot be lost now on anyone that Sonia Gandhi is being linked to the Agusta-Westland deal. The only difference is that the earlier deal smacked of corruption of a different kind while the current one is linked to kickbacks amounting to millions of euros involving politicians , bureaucrats, middlemen and others. BJP has got fresh ammunition against the Congress. In the aftermath of fresh revelations in an Italian court of appeal, the BJP is making direct charges against Sonia Gandhi creating a political storm. The Congress is retaliating asking why the Modi government did nothing to find out the truth during the two years of its rule. On the contrary, they allege, the Modi government has renewed business contacts with the Italian firm blacklisted by the UPA regime following disclosures of kickback.
Indeed, both the UPA government of Dr Manmohan Singh and the Modi-led NDA regime have failed to act decisively in the Agusta-Westland case. It was known to the UPA Government, for example, that the Italian probe had started as early as February 2011. Soon after, the then Defence Minister announced that he had ordered investigations into allegations of corruption. The Defence Ministry also ordered a CBI enquiry. But the investigations were painstakingly slow. It took more than two years to file the first FIR in March 2013. Why? According to knowledgeable circles, there was no pressure to move fast. Agencies took their own time.
If the Italian court of appeal had not come out with fresh disclosures linking Sonia Gandhi, perhaps it would have been business as usual for the Indian investigating agencies. Government sources say there no regular and real stock-taking and accountability of the enquiries ordered unless pressure comes from the highest quarters.
For one thing, enquiries over Agusta-Westland deal had to be slow because of the alleged involvement of so many people, including high-level officials. It is alleged that the investigators bide their time unless political pressure is mounted on them. They too gauge the political atmosphere. Who knows there could be a regime change three years from now?
The ruling party knows too that little is achieved from the investigations. What, for example, came out of the high ticket Bofors, Fairfax, Airbus deal enquiries? All these come handy only for political gains during poll season. It is another matter that voters no longer get influenced by these opportunistic acts. See how the investigators reacted in this case. The CBI and Enforcement Directorate gave it out to the media that they have “almost completed” the “domestic part” of the investigation but are awaiting leads from abroad.
Sources say the investigations will just drag on with no early conclusion in site. Air Marshal (Rtd) S.P. Tyagi has meanwhile taken the brunt of the attack without the conclusion of an enquiry. Last October, the Enforcement Directorate attached five prime residential properties belonging to Sanjeev Tyagi, Sandeep Tyagi and Rajiv Tyagi - all cousins of the former Air Chief as “the proceeds of crime”. The main charge against Tyagi - that he changed the altitude ceiling of the helicopter in order to win the contract -- is yet to be proved. Reports suggest that the technical specifications of the helicopter had been changed prior to his becoming chief on the orders of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Meanwhile, it now transpires that the three tri-engine VVIP helicopters that were delivered to India before the deal was scrapped, continues to remain idle in IAF custody and are parked at the Palam air base in Delhi. The pilots who were trained to fly these machines have moved to other assignments. The IAF has drawn out six Mi-17V5 helicopters for use by VVIPs.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)