Congress 'hand' seen in VVIP copter scam

Allegations of illegal payoffs in the deal to purchase VVIP helicopters from AgustaWestland have thus far swirled around former Air Chief SP Tyagi. Tyagi has been vehemently protesting his innocence, dismissing the allegation made in court documents presented by Italian prosecutors (who are investigating the Italian end of the money trail) that the former Air Chief was the ultimate beneficiary of the "bribes" paid to his cousins, the Tyagi brothers, to secure the contract.

That strand of the narrative still remains to be explored, and media investigations are ferreting out yet more details that could potentially prove embarrassing for SP Tyagi.  Other reports (like this one) point out that SP Tyagi has affiliations with other companies and agencies that offer "consultancy" in the aerospace and aviation sectors. For instance, Tyagi serves as Chairman of the Williams Global  Advisors, which offers services from "conducting initial market assessments to providing business development to helping you negotiate contracts."   (The company's website hurriedly removed Tyagi's photograph and name in recent days, evidently after the allegations against Tyagi surfaced, but the company's co-founder clarified that Tyagi remains with the firm.)

The middlemen in the AgustaWestland deal had tenuous links to the Congress. Courtesy: AgustaWestland

The middlemen in the AgustaWestland deal had tenuous links to the Congress. Courtesy: AgustaWestland

But thus far, no revelation that incriminates Indian politicians has emerged from the Italian investigations. In the Bofors case, the allegation right from the start was that payoffs were made to people close to then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. That allegation was validated much later when it was established that Italian wheeler-dealer Ottavio Quattrocchi, who was a close associate of Rajiv Gandhi and his wife Sonia, came it at a late stage of the Bofors negotiations, persuaded the company to wind down its commissions payment arrangements with other middlemen, delivered the contract in double-quick time, and and walked away with kickbacks.

This time, however, there has been no money trail leading to politicians. The "Italian connection" to the AgustaWestland deal has, however, proved too irresistible for Opposition politicians, who have tried to insinuate that the investigations in India have been slow to take off because, well, Sonia Gandhi has Italian roots.  On Thursday night, appearing on a CNN-IBN talk show, Janata Party leader and anti-corruption crusader Subramanian Swamy threw down the gauntlet at the Congress - and made the sensational and direct charge that Sonia Gandhi and her sisters were involved in the deal. He was spiritedly challenged by the Congress representative on the panel discussion, but vowed to provide proof.

Knowing what we know of tainted defence deals of the past couple of decades, it seems safe to say that it needs an entire ecosystem of conspirators for corrupt deals to be finalised. It isn't just enough for one person, however high ranking s/he may be, to be paid off. It needs tracks to be greased not just in the armed forces establishment, but in the defence ministry bureaucracy and the political end of the spectrum as well.

Which is why the exclusive focus on the allegations surrounding  SP Tyagi, without prejudice to his claims to innocence, seemed like they narrated only a part of the story. Where is the political angle to the allegations of payoffs, one wondered.

Writing in The Pioneer (here),  J Gopikrishnan (who broke the 2G scam, long before it became a national talking point) establishes a link that connects both the middlemen in the AgustaWestland deal to the family business of a Congress functionary who is considered close to Rahul Gandhi.

Citing an Italian news report from November 2012 (here, in Italian), The Pioneer reports that the father of Christian Michel, the main commission agent in the AgustaWestland deal, was "close to the Congress party". The other middleman in the deal, Guido Ralph Haschke, was more organically linked: he served briefly as a Director on the board of Emaar-MGF, a real estate company promoted by the father of Kanishka Singh, who is a close aide of Rahul Gandhi.

Kanishka Singh is not directly involved in Emaar-MGF: the company was founded by Ved Prakash Gupta, who was Kanishka's grandfather, and promoted by SK Singh, Kanishka's father and an IFS officer who was considered close to Rajiv Gandhi and served as Rajasthan Governor.

Emmar-MGF, however, has been mired in controversy arising from its contract to build the Games Village Complex for the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2010. It is to this today facing an investigation by the CBI on the charge that it received undue favours from the Delhi Development Authority to secure the contract for the Games Village project.

Precisely why Haschke, who has no experience in the real estate business, was appointed to the board of directors of Emmar-MGF is unclear. But, as this report in Business Standard establishes, Haschke was appointed to the board on 25 September 2009 as an independent, non-executive director. But he resigned abruptly in a little over a month - in December 2009.

An Emaar-MGF spokesperson had explained to the newspaper the circumstances under which Haschke was taken on board - and why he left so soon. Haschke was taken on board to meet the statutory requirement for an independent director in order to file an IPO, and he had been recommended for his experience in the international financial sector, the spokesperson said. But since the IPO eventually fell through, he did not continue on the board. Soon after the latest allegations against Haschke came out, Emaar-MGF clarified that it had no connection with Haschke's other businesses, despite his having served on its board briefly.

Very little is known about the other middleman, Christian Michel, even though he is evidently a familiar figure in Delhi's arms dalal circuit. According to the Italian media report, his father, Wolfgang Max Michel Richard, was a British businessman who was active inIndia during the 1980s and 1990s and was close to the Congress party. Wolfgang Michel evidently had business interests in Libya, Russia, Iran and Iraq.

These are, of course, only tenuous links, not quite the "smoking gun" as in the Bofors case. Yet, they show up the "political ecosystem" in which defence deals get finalised. The fact that both the middlemen in the AgustaWestland deal are linked, in however tenuous a fashion, to the Congress party potentially puts the party on the defensive. Of course, the party has in the past been brazen in dismissing far more egregious instances of corruption leading up to the top leadership. But the latest revelations nevertheless give the story the "political dimension" it has thus far lacked.

Published Date: Feb 15, 2013 07:01 am | Updated Date: Feb 15, 2013 07:02 am