The controversial 2010 AgustaWestland chopper deal has come back to haunt the Congress, as the Enforcement Directorate (ED) interrogates Christian Michel – the alleged middleman in the scam – and the BJP seized an opportunity to attack Rahul Gandhi’s party.
The BJP has made it clear that it aims to use the chopper deal as an answer to the Congress’s allegations against it on the Rafale aircraft purchase.
Immediately after a Delhi court restricted Michel’s legal assistance, the BJP jumped in with all guns firing. The ED had informed the judges that the British national had discreetly slipped in a note to his lawyer; ED officials claimed that the note listed a set of questions that were yet to be posed to Michel on “Mrs. Gandhi”.
BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar and union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said Congress has been “exposed”, and that Rahul and Sonia Gandhi have a lot to explain.
In 2010, the UPA government agreed to buy 12 AgustaWestland helicopters built by Italian defence manufacturer Finmeccanica (now known as the Leonardo group) for around Rs 3,600 crore. The helicopters were to replace older Mi-8 choppers for VVIP use.
In 2013, however, Italian police arrested AgustaWestland CEO Bruno Spagnolini and Guiseppe Orsi, chairman of Finmeccanica, for allegedly paying bribes to secure the deal.
Subsequently, the CBI alleged that Michel was paid Rs 295 crore to swing the deal in favour of the Italian manufacturer, and that Michel had convinced Indian Air Force (IAF) chief S.P. Tyagi to modify the technical specifications to make AgustaWestland the front-runner. Tyagi was later arrested by the CBI.
The UPA government cancelled the deal and ordered an inquiry. Three helicopters had by then already been delivered to the IAF.
Reviving the old debates
In December 2018, after Michel was extradited from a Dubai prison, BJP has been raking up the issue to target the Congress and the Gandhi family.
The AgustaWestland scam presents a fresh opportunity to revive the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s Italian descent and drive home the Gandhi family’s dominance over Indian politics – an criticism that Narendra Modi used to great effect in his prime ministerial campaign in 2014.
With only a few months left before the 2019 General Election, there is no better time for the BJP to place the Gandhi family back in the firing line; especially as the ruling party has been struggling to mount a convincing answer to growing rural distress and rising unemployment.
At the same time, Rahul Gandhi has emerged as a successful political agenda-setter. His constant focus on cronyism within the Modi government and a national agrarian crisis has had the BJP cornered electorally. Rahul is also credited for rejuvenating a wilted Congress after he took over from his mother as party president earlier this year.
In this context, the BJP will look to encash the AgustaWestland case to deflect attention from its own failures.
The other side of the story
So what is “Mrs. Gandhi’s” role in the controversial deal? For an answer, we have to revisit a 2016 Italian court order, which noted that there was sufficient evidence to prove corruption in the chopper deal.
While the court notes Air Marshal Tyagi and his family may have been bribed by the Italian company, it says nothing concrete about the involvement of Sonia Gandhi or anyone in the UPA government.
The court’s order mentions Sonia Gandhi, former prime minister Manmohan Singh and senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel, but as The Wire had reported at the time “not with association to them receiving bribes or kick-backs.”
The order refers to Michel’s letter to AgustaWestland’s India sales head, saying that “Sonia is the driving force” and her advisers should be targeted to clinch the deal.
The letter is indicative of the effect of corporate lobbying with the government, but it does not in any way implicate leaders in a crime.
However, a handwritten letter from Guiseppe Orsi, the chairman of Finmeccanica, also came up in the court order. In the letter, Orsi asked his staff to use Italian diplomats to ask Manmohan Singh to “scuttle the probe” by not cooperating with the Italian authorities.
The challenge for the Congress is to prove that it did enough to facilitate the probe.
This is what the Congress is currently doing. It is also questioning the Modi government’s decision to allow AgustaWestland do business in India despite the UPA government having blacklisted the company back in February 2013.
Ever since India Today published a story in which Michel claimed that he was being forced by the ED to depose that he met Sonia Gandhi (Muchel also said that he was told he would be let off the hook if he did), Congress has turned the heat up on the BJP.
The grand old party has four principal questions for the BJP.
1. AgustaWestland and Finmeccanica were blacklisted in India. Modi’s defence ministry removed this ban on 22 August, 2014. The government effectively permitted the company to participate in its “Make In India” programme on 3 March, 2015.
2. Subsequently, in October 2015, the Foreign Investment Promotion Board allowed AgustaWestland to invest in the country. As a result, it is manufacturing 100 AW119 fighter helicopters for India.
3. In 2017, AgustaWestland got a new contract to build 100 navy choppers for India.
4. Why did the Modi government not appeal against AgustaWestland/ Finmeccanica in higher courts of Italy, after it lost a few cases on the issue in lower courts?
Randeep Surjewala, the national spokesperson of the Congress, said, “After the UPA government cancelled the deal with AgustaWestland, we lodged an FIR and ordered a CBI probe. Then defence minister A K Antony also proposed to constituted a joint parliamentary committee but the BJP rejected the offer.”
“As far as the payments to AgustaWestland is concerned, we recovered much more. At the time the deal was cancelled, we had already paid Rs 1620 crore to the company. Three helicopters had come by that time. But we took immediate corrective steps and recovered Rs 2,068 crore,” he said.
He claimed that the UPA government seized Rs 240 crore that belonged to AgustaWestland, which was deposited as security in Indian banks. It also moved the Italian courts to claim damage worth 228 million euros and won the case.
“If we add the price of the three helicopters (Rs 886.50 crore) that are still with us, the UPA government recovered almost double the amount we had spent on the deal,” Surjewala said.
He added that the Milan court that initiated the probe gave a new, 322-page judgement on 17 September, 2018 – and exonerated all Indian officials.
“It found no evidence against any Indian official. The Modi government was a party in this case, which it lost. Again, it did not appeal the higher court,” said Surjewala.
A tough battle
The BJP’s public statements have skipped over the details of the scam. Instead, they have focussed on Congress’s alleged indulgence of middlemen in defence contracts, and projected the Modi government as the first to initiate an inter-governmental deal – like the Rafale fighter jet purchase.
Meanwhile, the Congress has alleged that the Modi government is using investigative agencies to throw muck at its leaders, though there is no way to corroborate that. It is doubling down on its attack on the Modi government on the Rafale deal, rural distress and unemployment.