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19 February, 2013

Caught in another scam

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The United Progressive Alliance government is in damage control mode following revelations in an Italian court that Indians were bribed to secure orders for helicopters. It has asked the Central Bureau of Investigation to probe the charge but there is little chance of the agency coming up with any concrete evidence.

Many military contracts have been mired in scandals but now, for the first time, the name of the chief of staff of a defence force has come up in a corruption case.

It was in 2010 that India placed orders with AgustaWestland, an Anglo-Italian company, for 12 helicopters for the VVIP squadron which flies the president, the prime minister and visiting dignitaries. Early last year Italian prosecutors began an inquiry into allegations that AW’s parent company, Finmeccanica, had paid kickbacks, part of which had reached Italian politicians. The Indian contract was mentioned in this connection.

Last week Finmeccanica’s chief executive, Giuseppe Orsi, was arrested for allegedly paying $670 million to secure the Indian order. According to the prosecution, Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi, who was Chief of Air Staff from December 2004 to March 2007, was paid an amount, which has not been quantified yet, through his relatives “to perform and for having performed a deed against his official duties.”

Both Orsi and the company have denied the bribery charge. Tyagi has admitted that he met certain middlemen involved in the deal in the company of some relatives, but asserts he took no money.

The deed Tyagi allegedly performed was modification of the specifications of the helicopter to favour AgustaWestland. He points out that the modification was done in 2003, before he became air force chief, and the contract with the firm was signed three years after his retirement.

The deal with AgustaWestland was signed after a decade-long quest for a suitable helicopter, which began when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance was in power. Taking into account the possibility of having to fly VVIPs to high-altitude areas like the Siachen Glacier, it was proposed that the helicopter must be capable of flying at a height of 18,000 feet.

Brajesh Mishra, then National Security Adviser, suggested modification of the specification. In a letter to the then air chief he said the height specified had created a single-window situation since Eurocopter, a Franco-German enterprise, was the only one with a helicopter that can fly at 18,000 feet. He asked that the specifications be revised in consultation with the Special Protection Group, which looks after VVIP security.

The SPG proposed that the operational height be lowered to 15,000 feet. This opened the way for AgustaWestland to participate in the tender. The SPG also wanted safety to be a prime consideration. This gave AW a distinct advantage as its helicopter had three engines, not just two.

Following the NDA’s defeat in the 2004 elections, the UPA came to power and in 2005 AK Antony was appointed defence minister. Reports at that time said Congress President and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi had picked him for the post in view of his clean reputation.

Congress and BJP spokespersons are working overtime to pin responsibility for the scam on each other. The former relies on the fact that the NDA government initiated the move to modify the specification. The latter points out that the modification was approved and the contract awarded by the UPA government.

When reports of the Italian investigation appeared in the Indian media a year ago Antony asked the defence ministry to look into the matter. The Indian embassy in Rome was not able to provide any information beyond what had been published. Parliament was told an inquiry could not be undertaken merely on the basis of media reports.

Unlike in the 2G and Commonwealth Games scandals, now before the courts, the name of no politician has come up in the AW deal so far. But the BJP sees in it an opportunity to embarrass the Italian-born Congress President Sonia Gandhi. It has also called for an inquiry into the role of an aide of her son and Congress Vice-President, Rahul Gandhi.

The new scam brings to mind memories of the Bofors scandal in which the names of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and his friends had come up. The CBI investigated it for many years without any success.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 19, 2013.

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