Many of us except, of course, the millennial generation, would remember the Bofors controversy of the 1980s that played a significant role in turning the public mood against the then INC government at the Centre and led to its electoral defeat in the general elections of 1989. Even more so, it cast doubts on the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s “Mr. Clean” image and revived the politics of cynicism – on corruption, communalism, affirmative action, separatism and technology adoption – after a period that had seen the renewal of hope, the generation and dissemination of new ideas, and the acceleration of delivery and implementation by the government.
Just to keep things brief when it comes to this ghost from the past and so that we can move on to the new ghost of the present, no evidence of Rajiv Gandhi being involved or having benefitted from the Bofors gun deal was found after laboured investigations spanning one and a half decades, including by non-INC governments for almost a full decade during this period, with the NDA govt led by Mr. Vajpayee being in power for about six years besides the briefer reign of the V.P. Singh led govt that came into power in 1989 immediately after this controversy erupted. Rajiv Gandhi was declared innocent by the Delhi High Court in 2004, while cases against Bofors agent Win Chadha and others, who were accused of being involved in potentially murky dealings with some personnel in the government or the armed forces, were continued, though the technical prowess of the Bofors gun was never questioned and it was deployed heavily in the Kargil war by India under a BJP govt, serving this country honourably. So, a full 15 years and more after shouts of “Gali gali mein shor hai, Rajiv Gandhi chor hai” rent the air alongside “Jai Shri Ram”, the people of India were quietly informed that their former Prime Minister was indeed Mr. Clean. But it was too late, because the forward path on which he had started to move India ahead, despite some internal and external wranglings and misgivings, had been waylaid, barring a historic but stunning cameo by Dr. Singh under PM Rao. And the man himself was no more.
On to the Agusta Westland deal now. This latest red herring is even more bizarre and, for want of a better word, stupid.
AgustaWestland, an Italian firm (that itself would, of course, be enough to make many like Subramanian Swamy sit up and speculate) under the Finmeccanica group, signed a Rs. 3546 crore contract to supply 12 AW-101 helicopters to the IAF. Eight of these choppers were to be used for ferrying the country’s top civilian officials (the Prez, the VP, the PM and others) and the remaining four for other duties. The need for these new VVIP choppers was felt because the earlier Soviet era MI-8 had expired their shelf life and the IAF had also cited other technical limitations regarding high altitude and night time flying that required attention. There wasn’t, therefore, and hasn’t been since, any case for wrongful purposes of acquiring these choppers, to begin with.
The other charges in graft cases are generally related to monetary or other material benefit to those engaged in favouring a given supplier, causing monetary losses to the purchaser due to financial irregularities, or compromising the quality of the purchased product on account of kickbacks and as measured against the stated requirements or specifications.
That defence deals around the world are corruption prone is a well known fact. That is in the nature of an industry that thrives on full scale wars, managed conflicts, military ambitions, threat perceptions, and that elusive state called defence preparedness.
That money may have changed hands in many of these defence deals, in India and abroad, including those for the Bofors guns, the Agusta Westland choppers and, most unfortunately, even for the coffins of Kargil martyrs, is a distinct possibility. The question really lies in who is culpable and who are the beneficiaries, if that has indeed been the case.
The BJP’s charge on Agusta is that Ms. Sonia Gandhi is involved. For a change, they have omitted Dr. Manmohan Singh from their hitlist. But that may be because Dr. Singh has lost his value as a target after moving out of 7RCR.
The most critical piece of evidence that the BJP, and a certain Dr. Swamy, has against Ms. Gandhi is evidently her Italian birth, for their vicious hatred for her stems therefrom. The next best evidence they have is a March 2008 letter from the main middleman in the scandal, Christian Michel, to Peter Hulet, the India head of Agusta Westland, that describes “Signora Gandhi” as “the driving force behind VIP helicopters”. Dr. Manmohan Singh is mentioned in a 2013 letter by Guiseppe Orsi, former Agusta CEO, written while he was in prison. The letter said that the Italian PM or a senior Italian diplomat should call the former PM to intervene in the Agusta deal. Brilliant pieces of evidence both, and earth shattering in their conclusiveness of proving the guilt of two people that the BJP loves to hate. Unfortunately, to the rest of the world, they are of as much value as the merit of the said Dr. Swamy being made a Rajya Sabha member by the BJP just ahead of the current session of Parliament so he can do what he does best – vilification.
A few other officials and agents are indeed under the scanner and should be investigated to complete the enquiry initiated by then Defence Minister A. K. Anthony a day after the allegations of bribery in this case were reported in the Indian Express newspaper on February 24, 2012. Mr. Anthony had cited the integrity clause in the Agusta deal to emphasize that any instance of graft would attract strict punitive measures. Following up on his promise, the UPA froze payments for the choppers, although the Indian government had already paid Rs 1,620 crore, 45% of the contract value, and received three helicopters. The Indian government then encashed Agusta’s guarantee money of Rs 250 crore held in Indian banks in January 2014. And, after winning a legal case in Italy in June 2014, the Indian government encashed guarantees of Rs 1,818 crore held in Italian banks, taking the total amount recovered to Rs 2,068 crore. More than what was paid to Agusta till then! Probes by the CBI and by the ED were also initiated. And as a parting gift, the UPA blacklisted Agusta in early 2014.
All of this happened, of course, before PM Modi happened. But after assuming power, the Modi govt strangely removed Agusta Westland from the blacklist and enabled them to participate in the “Make in India” program for defence manufacturing. And now the BJP has brought the skies down accusing the INC President of being a beneficiary and a key instigator of the said Agusta Westland scam following the Milan Court of Appeals’ overturning this month of the earlier dismissal of graft charges against retired Air Chief Marshal S. P. Tyagi by an Italian lower court in October 2014.
The BJP, and the said Dr. Swamy, obviously believe that red herrings like Bofors and Agusta raised from time to time to accuse the top leadership of the INC is an effective strategy to vilify their key political opponents, waylay them, divert the attention of the media and the people from key issues like farm distress, widespread drought and economic downturn or ongoing crises like the fiasco in Uttarakhand over the constitionality of the imposition of President’s Rule.
But, by the likes of it, the people, and hopefully the media too, have learnt their lessons from the ghost of Bofors and “ain’t ready to take no more bullshit” on Agusta, etc. And, therefore, this latest misstep by the Modi Sarkar to attack the INC leadership on Agusta without any evidence could very well be the beginning of their Agastya Yatra, which, in the modern context, would likely be a one way ticket to nowhere on a train arriving at its destination in 2019.