Friday, February 22, 2013

Choppergate and beyond…
More often than not, lesser pain appears to vanish when you experience more excruciating new suffering. In the current political context the Union Government is benefitted from the terrible cycle of terror unleashed by Islamic terrorists wreaking vengeance for their brother hung on the gallows for the heinous attack on Indian parliament. News hawks tearing the government for yet another corruption in the purchase of a squadron of VVIP helicopters from Italy have shifted their attention to the horrendous story of Bomb blasts in Hyderabad. The news media has done this before: they had almost abandoned the humongous 2G and Coalgate scams involving corruption sucking billions of rupees from the nation’s coffers to go after a newer scam which involved only $556 million. While I regret the expression, the Hyderabad blasts are a Godsend to the UPA government in the sense the human calamity will be less one-sided as a target of attack on it. For all you know, the news media will not even do the follow-up stories on the corruption issues  as long as they have a surfeit of morbid stories on the human calamities following the serial blasts over two days, and God forbid, yet to come.

I am on the choppergate now and wish to do some probing, even as the Prime Minister, his cabinet colleagues and Congress party spokespersons take pains to explain that the Agusta Westland investigation as a time-consuming and almost hopeless pursuit. Some have already blamed for Defence Minister AK Antony for moving to scrap the copter deal, without consulting the Cabinet Committee on Security, and the PMO. News is leaking that Italy has refused to cooperate because their “judicial process is going on”. I was just wondering whether it is not in the interest of this Union government that Italy refuses to cooperate for ever on this issue. Was anybody like Madhav Singh Solanki was sent with a note to the Italian authorities not to cooperate with the CBI as was done in the case of the Bofors scam? Why this sudden offer for a JPC? Who does not know what happens when a JPC with a majority of members from the UPA and their allies sit in judgement when the Government machinery is the accused?

This is particularly relevant when we know that the CBI probe into the Coalgate scam involving Rs.1.86lakh crores is stalled Coal Ministry, (still under the PM?) is not delivering files asked for by the investigative agency. This is what Ranjit Sinha tells the Parliament’s Accounts Committee (PAC). Meanwhile the CBI’s Senior Public Prosecutor was caught on tape helping the key accused, CEO Sanjay Chandra of Unitech, boasting about “muddling the matters” wherever possible, coaching him and guiding him how to counter CBI legal moves.

A newspaper close to the Government reported all of a sudden on 19th February that the Union Government indeed had smelt a rat “months ago” and “petitioned Rome 6 times over the chopper deal, something which not even the Ministry of Defence press release a few days earlier had mentioned! Another newspaper had a front-page report of Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid opposing the scrapping of the Agusta Westland copter lead, for the purported reason of such a decision affecting the “defence preparedness of the country”! Who is he to worry about defence preparedness more than the Defence Minister himself?  There are indeed many others who spread the story that cancellation of the copter deal by Defence Minister will be a “big set back” to the IAF. They forget that the VVIP helicopters are not essential weaponry for the defence forces. There must be a lot of heartburn in New Delhi’s corruption circuit because the Finmeccanica and their agents have in the pipeline some $8 billion (Rs.44000Cr) worth Indian contracts which they might lose if AK Antony has his way!

It was in 2010 that Government of India decided to purchase 12 Agusta Westland AW101 helicopters for ferrying around the Prez, the PM and other dignitaries at the cost of Rs.3546Cr ($556 million). The helicopters are manufactured in the Yevil factory in UK.  Italian Prosecutors suspect payment of more than Rs.450Cr to middlemen as bribes and Finmeccanica CEO Giuseppe Orsi was arrested on corruption charges. Agusta Chief Bruno Spagnolini is under house arrest. Former Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi’s relatives, Sandip, Julie and Dosca are named as beneficiaries by the Italian Prosecutor. The Italian middlemen under arrest assert that they met Tyagi 6/7 times, including at the Bangalore airshow, and at the offices of his cousins. Italian investigators suspect and investigative reporters allege that a kick back of 51 million euros (Rs.350Cr) was paid out directly and some 30 million euros was routed through Christian Michel, a UK-based middleman and confidant of Orsi, the Finmeccanica CEO.

Meanwhile, it is known that a Chandigarh-based Software firm, IDS Infotech routed Rs.140Cr bribes in Mother India through a fake-deal in IT services to Agusta Westland. IDS Infotech does not show up in Ministry of Corporate Affairs records. The Minister-in-charge may not want to have it on records, if I were him. The fact is that IDS hived off a subsidiary, Aeromatrix which had as directors, Guido Ralph Haschke and Carlos Gerosa, a Delhi-based advocate Gautam Khaitan and one Pravin Bakshi who was also an executive VP in IDS. Here enters the coal-scam tainted former Union Minister of State, and Congress leader Santosh Bagrodia’s brother Satish as another director of IDS Infotech. To create further confusion, there is talk of a lion’s share of the kick-back going to “the family”. Sounds like the ‘G’ in Bofors scam?

ACM Tyagi distinctly remembers now that he met the middlemen after retirement! Tyagi also cleverly tried an escape route instigating Congress-led government to deflect the needle of suspicion to NDA government and spin a scam out of in the opposite direction saying that the technical parameters were tweaked to favour Westland by Vajpayee PMO in 2003, though the tenders were floated in 2006, finalised in 2007 and the deal was inked in 2010 when Pranab Mukherjee was the Defence Minister in the UPA government! Tyagi had almost succeeded in triggering a major political storm in Delhi, when unfortunately for him, a day after Tyagi’s above statement, the present Defence Minister being an honest person, a Defence Ministry press release on 14.2.2013 said that the tender requirements for the helicopters were “deliberated at length” between March 2005 and September 2006 before changer in the specifications made, which fits with the Italian investigator’s claim! A preliminary report of 64 pages filed in the tribunal of Busto Arsizio city after arresting Orsi and Spagnolini, the Italian investigators have named ACM SP Tyagi (who was IAF Chief from January 2005 to December 2007) as beneficiary of an undisclosed amount to be routed through his cousins. Middlemen claim that they met Tyagi in his office, influenced him to change terms, and the ACM went on briefing them thereafter on all developments. There seems to be perfect logic and a lot of circumstantial evidence to assume that ‘the Italians took money, kin route to air chief’ as a national newspaper’s banner headline said on the front page.

Finmeccanica the holding company of Agusta Westland bagged the Indian business in February 2010  beating rival US firm Sikorsky, the better-known manufacturer of military choppers on the ground that Sikorsky machines cannot reach the “operational ceiling” od 18000 feet; but for clearing Agusta Westland this was quietly tweaked to 15000 feet, just 500 feet higher than Sikorsky!

A national News TV Channel had broken the news on the kickbacks a year back following which BJP MP Prakash Javadedkar had written to the Defence Minister regarding the 51 million euros commission paid to one Guido Ralph Haschke to facilitate the deal in India. It is very similar to Ottavio Quattrocchi, a Country Manager of Snam Projetti based in Delhi getting 3% commission for Indian Army’s purchase of Howitzers made by Bofors of Sweden.

“When the bribe-giver has been caught, why can’t the bribe-taker be identified?” asks BJP’s Arun Jaitley. Don’t you remember, Mr.Jaitley, speaking to the CBI officers and anti-corruption establishment of the country recently, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had told them that what was needed was to focus on the ‘Supply side of corruption”. And that side could be expected not to open up to us! I was astonished as the BJP escaped the allegation of wrong-doing imputed by former ACM Tyagi, thanks to the Defence Ministry’s own press release, former BJP Defence Minister Jaswant Singh, the man who speaks in capital letters, as they say, tried to support ACM (retd) Tyagi to the extent of holding the view that Brajesh Mishra had the specs changed! Jaswant Singh however, clarifies that former NSA had taken the decision to avoid a single-vendor situation. For Jaswant “guilt through association” doesn’t exist and Tyagi is likely to be innocent! That is not the impression we get from the investigations in Italy…Perhaps Jaswant Singh has forgotten the example of the Nandas, the Khannas, and the Choudhries of the past. Would Jaswant benefit of doubt to former coal minister Santosh Bagrodia too?

Perhaps the Indian defence system fails to plug the holes in the system despite the series of scandals over defence purchases during the last three or four decades. Defence Ministers like Jagjivan Ram, Sharad Pawar and Moolayam Sigh Yadav have been named in controversies over assets and incomes far exceeding their known sources of income. The “integrity pacts” and prohibition over engagement of agents and the tall talk of transparency have been only for the consumption of the gullible public, it appears. It may be noted that if they have no agents they may employ Managers connected with the potential customers. US copter firm Sikorsky has Air Vice-Marshal AJS Walia (retd) as their India and South Asia head. Former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi could helpfully defended the Indian system (now almost run by his compatriot) with a statement that “bribes are a phenomenon that exist. It’s useless to deny the existence of these situations. They are not crimes”. It must be heartening to the Congress party, and Prime Minister Singh. Had not Indiraji herself said that corruption was a worldwide phenomenon?

I am deeply worried because the Defence Minister AK Antony-led Defence Acquisition Council is already sitting on billions of dollars’ worth procurement of arms, ammunitions and planes and helicopters. It appears 197 light utility helicopters (Rs.3000Cr) proposal had a middleman (Brigadier Saini?) asking Agusta Westland $5 million bribe to swing the deal, this being a joint Army-IAF procurement plan. Agusta Westland is out of this deal now, but the Russian Kamov Ka-226T and EurocopterAS550C3 Fennec are in the race. Newsmen call Antony a “champion blacklister” for having many like the Singapore Technology Kinetics, Rheinmetall, the German conglomerate, Israel Military Industries, South African Denel, and altogether some 120 or so defence suppliers put under the blacklist. It is as if the difficult choice is between safeguarding the Minister’s personal integrity and the nation’s defence preparedness. St. Antony is very touchy about issues of corruption, and in the situation, it would be the Indian armed forces that stand deprived of essential supplies be front-line combat equipment from fighter aircraft, artillery guns or air defence radars.

Antony’s penchant for black-listing manufacturers, and cancelling orders which materialised after years of prevarication can throw a spanner in the works of our much delayed defence purchases even as his ministry’s claims of an effective ban on middlemen and arms dealers. The Defence Minister’s preference to technical superiority based on specification sheets like in the case of the Rs.64500 order for the Rafale fighter aircraft from Dassault, is equally worrisome. The French fighter aircraft is not known to have participated in any major war!

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