Proof Of The Pudding.
History: The issue surrounds an aborted deal for purchase of VVIP helicopters. The story starts in the last millennium, when the Vajpayee Government found existing VVIP helicopters had to be replaced. When a tender was floated for new choppers, only Eurocopter met every criteria prescribed, including maximum height and swoop down emergency landing. For strange reasons, Vajpayee's National Security Advisor, Brajesh Mishra, advised the Government that the height criterion should be relaxed to allow more competitors for the tender. The excuse was that a single-vendor tender was not tenable.
Why 6,000 metres? While multiple competitors could help in getting a fair price for any deal, the Government had stipulated maximum elevation attainable for the choppers as 6000 metres for the safety of VVIPs. Nimbus clouds that often form over Indian skies are capable of producing storms, lightning and even tornadoes but remain below 6000 metres. The precaution was not without reason: Congress leader Madhavrao Scindia died after his plane was hit by such a cloud. (Subsequently, former Lok Sabha Speaker Balayogi, Andhra CM YS Rajasekhara Reddy, Haryana Congress leaders OP Jindal and Surinder Singh and Arunachal CM Dorjee Khandu were among VIPs killed in chopper crashes). The suggestion that the height criterion should be relaxed to let in more competitors was, hence, questionable.
Change in Govt : By the time the decision to relax the criterion was to be made, the Vajpayee Government was replaced with the Congress-led UPA Government. The UPA Government did not find Mishra's suggestion questionable and issued fresh tenders for acquiring 12 VVIP choppers. America's Siorsky, Russia's Mi-171 and Italy's Finmeccanica bid for the contract, but not Eurocopters. The Russians pulled out and Finmeccanica's AgustaWestland won the contract.
Antony's Safeguards : Before the contract could be signed, Pranab Mukherjee was replaced by AK Antony as Defence Minister. Antony insisted on including clauses in the purchase agreement that said there would be no middlemen in the contract and breach of this norm would lead to Government cancelling the deal and retrieving advance paid. For ensuring that the advance could be retrieved, Finmeccanica was asked to give bank guarantees.
Scam & Action : After the first three choppers arrived, news broke out in the Italian media that Finmeccanica had hired a middleman to bribe officials and politicians in India to swing the deal. Antony cancelled the contract, ordered a CBI probe and recommended that the chopper company be blacklisted if proven guilty. India also encashed the bank guarantee for retrieving the advance paid, while the first 3 choppers that arrived remained bubble wrapped in Delhi. This meant no losses to the exchequer. If Finmeccanica paid bribes, the loss was entirely its.
Enter, Indian Media : The case in Italy saw the lower court acquitting those accused of corruption, which was turned down by the appeals court. Last week, The Economic Times published news that the Italian appeals court verdict criticised the UPA Government for not 'cooperating' in the probe. This was followed by Times Now report that the one accused of taking the Finmeccanica commission, Christian Michel, a British citizen, in a handwritten letter during negotiations mentioned that Sonia Gandhi was in a position to decide on the VVIP choppers. The letter named a few Congress leaders who could influence her. The names included Ahmed Patel, Manmohan Singh and Oscar Fernandes. The letter was produced among documents by the prosecution but the Italian appeals court did not think a mere letter with names of people who could influence Sonia Gandhi on a deal that was cancelled amounted to proof of corruption against any of them.
Michel's Claims : The next day, The Hindu published an interview with Michel. Contrary to The Economic Times and Times Now claims, Michel was in Dubai and not in London. He offered himself to be interrogated in Dubai by India's Enforcement Directorate and CBI. He also pledged to fly down to India for interrogation if the Government could give an assurance he would not be arrested. He denied having written any letter and said it was not his handwriting. But he claimed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried a 'barter deal' with his Italian counterpart Mattio Renzi when they met last year at the UN in late September: 'Give India proof of Finmeccanica with the Gandhi family and we will end the arbitration against the Italian marines - who killed two Indian fishermen - in the International Court of Justice,' was the barter deal suggested by Modi, according to Michel.
Mudslinging : What would a responsible Government do in the light of all this? It would ask the CBI and ED to make a more vigorous probe for fast results. It would also produce the minutes of the PM's engagement in the UN to rebut Michel's barter claims. But what did the NDA Government and the party ruling India do?
All the ministers and BJP leader started parroting a line: If the bribe givers have been punished, Sonia Gandhi should tell us the names of bribe-receivers. But is Sonia Gandhi in charge of the CBI and Enforcement Directorate?
We have a Defence Minister who says that AgustaWestland has not been blacklisted - overlooking the fact that Antony only said he had begun proceedings for blacklisting - but would not tell us that there are several projects in the defence forces in which Agusta's services are utilised and it cannot be easily blacklisted. Nor would he say that Agusta signed a Make-in-India contract with an industrialist close to the NDA establishment after the allegations.
Smokescreen: For long, the BJP to the Aam Aadmi Party have used allegations of corruption against the Congress to capture power but while enjoying the fruits of office, none have been able to get investigative agencies to prove corruption charges. Right from Bofors bribes charges against former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to cases against former Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, neither BJP nor AAP have taken probe to its logical conclusions. Of course, they have a thousand excuses on why 'corrupt' could not be punished.
Gentlemen of the BJP, the people are not looking for your 'jumla'. You are not in the Opposition but in power and it's up to you to prove the corruption charges. Leaking selective material to your hitmen in the media or pliable journalists will not get you anywhere because you won a mandate to cleanse the system, not to spout rhetoric. It's time to prove your charges.
Published by HT Syndication with permission from Indian Currents.
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