VVIP chopper scam: SP Tyagi has much to answer for

All of Wednesday, SP Tyagi was on television, defending his name that has been dragged into the mud by Italian prosecutors' claims, made in an official court document, that the former Air Chief was the ultimate beneficiary of "bribes" that were paid by Italian firm Finmeccanica to his cousins, the Tyagi brothers, in order to clinch the deal to sell 12 VVIP helicopters to India.

Tyagi denied the allegation that he had changed the specification requirements for the helicopter purchase in a way that benefited AgustaWestland, the subsidiary of Finmeccanica, and allowed its AW-101 chopper to qualify for the bidding. The critical change in the technical parameters - lowering the flight altitude specification for the copter from 18,000 feet to 15,000 feet -  had been made in 2003, at the intervention of the then National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, he said. And although the tendering process happened during his tenure in that high office, the actual deal was consummated after his time, he claimed.

And although Tyagi acknowledged that the three Tyagi brothers - listed in Italian documents as Julie, Docsa and Sandeep, the alleged conduits for the payoffs  - were indeed his cousins, he claimed that "as far as he knew", they were not in the business of facilitating defence procurements. In any case, Tyagi said, he had pointedly asked them if they had had anything to do with the AgustaWestland deal, and they had sworn they weren't.

SP Tyagi has presented his side of the matter, but he is far from convincing. PTI

SP Tyagi has presented his side of the matter, but he is far from convincing. PTI

"I am innocent," Tyagi said. "These  allegations are totally baseless and I am denying them categorically. The deal was signed in 2010 whereas I retired in 2007 itself."

One empathises with Tyagi's predicament. If he is truly innocent of the charge that he accepted bribes to clinch the deal, he has suffered a grievous loss of reputation because of the Italian prosecutors' report that names and shames him. His efforts to redeem his reputation by positioning himself before television cameras all day and proclaiming his innocence are, of course, valorous, but in a larger sense they are ineffectual. Which is why he says he welcomes - in fact, insists on - an official inquiry into the deal, which (he reckons) will exonerate him.

But even as Tyagi presents his case before the court of public opinion, yet more damaging revelations are raining down on him, which are enfeebling his argument. The Indian Express, which has over the past year offered the most comprehensive coverage of the scam, has dropped another bombshell (here), which incriminates SP Tyagi in a serious fashion.

The latest report points out that Guido Haschke, the Switzerland-based middleman who allegedly intermediated the AgustaWestland deal, had confessed to Italian authorities that he had met Tyagi as many as seven or times - and even discussed the technical specifications for the contract with him.

That confession by Haschke was made in November 2012, as part of an investigation in Italy into allegations of payoffs by Finmeccanica to secure contracts - in India and elsewhere. It has now come into the public domain since it finds mention in the preliminary inquiry report that Italian authorities filed before a court on Tuesday while securing the arrest of  Finmeccanica CEO Giuseppe Orsi on the charge that he played a role in making illegal payoffs to secure the Indian contract.

At his numerous media appearances on Wednesday, Tyagi grudgingly acknowledged that he had met one other middleman - Carlo Gerosa, a business associate of Hasckhe's - but denied that he had anything to do with the deal.

"I have met Carlo in my cousins' place, but when you say you have contact with him, then the answer is no," 'Tyagi said. "What connection could I have with him? I want to tell you that the whole process started after I retired.. the entire process of evaluation, trials, contracts took place in 2010."

The cruel irony that faces SP Tyagi today is that for all his well-earned reputation as an officer and a gentlemen, his protestations of innocence sound less convincing and credible than the confessions of a low-life arms dalal in faraway ItalyIf one studies the entire mass of the Italian court documents that are in the public domain, the neural networks that bind Finmeccanica, its middle-men - and the Tyagi brothers as the recipients of  payoffs to clinch the deal - are established in great detail.

Italian investigators, who have displayed far greater earnestness to ferret out the details of the case than the Indian government has so far, have established that the kickbacks were paid in the form of monthly remittance right up to December 2012 - and made to appear as if they were payments made for engineering contracts (more details here).

And according to this report, the remittances were shown as "payments for software developed in India," perhaps because it was reckoned that the transfers would not draw Indian authorities' attention.

Nor are these just passing, throwaway allusions that smear SP Tyagi - or his cousins. Recordings made by Italian authorities of conversations between Haschke and Gerosa (among others) - a sample of which Firstpost offered here -  and the confessional statements recorded in the court document that investigators presented on Tuesday establish beyond reasonable doubt that the Tyagi brothers were recipients of funds from Finmeccanica, and these payoffs were related to securing the contract for the purchase of the AW-101 helicopters.

The fact that the official investigation report of the Italian authorities actually names SP Tyagi as the ultimate beneficiary of the payoffs  is pretty damning. It drags not just SP Tyagi's reputation into the mud, but also that of an institution like the IAF. And despite Tyagi's attempt to fix the blame for the change in technical specification on Brajesh Mishra (who is no longer around to defend himself), it's worth bearing in mind that the Italian court document does not mention Mishra's name  (or that of any of his 'cousins') even once as the beneficiary of payoffs in the deal. Whereas SP Tyagi and his Tyagi brother-cousins get star billing, so to speak.

For all of Tyagi's protestations of innocence, his claims so far are far from convincing, particularly when weighed against the body of material in Italian courts that incriminates him. It is in his own interest - and that of the IAF - that a rigorous investigation be conducted, but then given the CBI's pathetic record on this front (it has failed to crack even one of the 39 defence investigations that have been handed to it since 2004), the suspicion that it will only bury the case runs high.

For now, however, SP Tyagi faces the ignominy of seeing his name dragged into the mud every day by the steady drip-drip of revelations from far-off Italy.