On Tuesday evening, the Congress party's Twitter account was busy.
— INC India (@INCIndia) April 26, 2016
By then it had become clear that the ghost of the Italian AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter deal had come back to haunt Congress’s First Family and the ruling BJP was aiming all its firepower directly at Sonia Gandhi. Her name had been mentioned four times, at one point referred as the “main driving force” in the 225-page judgment of the Milan Court of Appeals, which overturned the lower court’s order and sentenced Finmeccanica’s former chief Giuseppe Orsi to four-and-a-half years in jail, former CEO of Finmeccanica’s helicopter subsidiary AgustaWestland Bruno Spagnolini to four years for false accounting and corruption in the Rs 3,600-crore-plus deal to sell 12 VVIP choppers to India.
Sonia's most trusted aide Ahmed Patel is also likely to be in the line of fire, but again, any ammunition directed at him will only ricochet towards his political boss. A completely cornered Congress tried hard to ring-fence its president, just as it did over the weekend in the Ishrat Jahan case.
And just as the Congress’ defence was gaining circulation, Subramanian Swamy, the nominated BJP leader who earlier in the day had taken his oath as a Rajya Sabha MP, tweeted:
BJP parliamentary party whip has asked me to raise Agusta in RS tomorrow. So I have filed Notice under Rule 267
— Subramanian Swamy (@Swamy39) April 26, 2016
Whether or not the Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha allows Swamy to speak remains to be seen. But, let's assume for a moment that the Chair does allow Swamy to raise the matter, will the Congress let him speak? Nobody has an answer yet. However, given the way Swamy speaks and the way Congress member reacts to anything pointed at their party president and vice-president, the Rajya Sabha is bound to see some of the most heated moments of the year.
Besides, considering Swamy’s known credentials and ability to garnish facts and arguments against Nehru-Gandhi family, the BJP has strategically chosen his first assignment — as per the convention, any new member’s maiden speech is not disrupted. It’s generally common courtesy to applaud him or her. Going by the available indications, Swamy's case will be an exception. Both sides have already issued whips to their members.
The AgustaWestland scam has the potential to acquire Bofors-like proportions. Parallels between the two are strong. An Italian connection is only one of the parallels.
Where it could hurt Congress worse is that if Bofors tarnished Rajiv Gandhi’s 'Mr Clean' image, AgustaWestland could dent the halo of “amazing grace and ultimate sacrifice” that was so consciously woven around Sonia since 2009.
In a letter dated 15 March, 2008 — seized by investigators — the main middleman in the deal, Christian Michel, who is still a fugitive, was shown to be writing to Peter Hulet — then India region sales and liaison head of the helicopter company. The letter stated that Sonia was the main driving force behind the deal and she will no longer fly in the existing Mi-8 choppers.
The letter is quoted verbatim in the judgment.
The judgment also says that middleman Guido Haschke had identified all the Congress leaders including Sonia and Ahmed Patel in the court when their photos were shown to him during the trial by the Italian prosecution. The ninth page of the judgment also affixed Michel's handwritten note to Haschke on how to distribute the total commission of €30 million (approximately $34 million). Bribe money was to be distributed in three parts — politicians (52 percent), bureaucracy (28 percent) and air force officers (20 percent).
All three arms of the decision-making process were compromised.
The note said political leaders were to be allotted €15-16 million and the name shown to those at the political level was noted only as “AP”. Only one political leader to whom the money was handed over is shown as AP, which refers to Ahmed Patel as confirmed on page 204.
The judgment papers also refer to the family of then air force chief SP Tyagi.
But the political war is going to be focused on Sonia.
Manmohan Singh’s name also comes for repeated mention. Pages 163 and 164 name Singh and detail that Orsi used Italian leadership and diplomats to contact the then prime minister to scuttle the probe through non-cooperation from the Government of India.
Another tweet from the Congress said:
A company that violated Indian laws was blacklisted by UPA. The same company was removed from blacklist by Modi Govt pic.twitter.com/9mL8KNssT9
— INC India (@INCIndia) April 26, 2016
The BJP vehemently denied this charge, with spokesman Sambit Patra saying, “With all authority in my command, I say that AgustaWestland has not been delisted from blacklist.”
In its briefing on the subject, the BJP fielded Union Telecommunication Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. He said "Now that the bribe-givers have been convicted, what should happen to the bribe-takers? Will Mr (former defence minister, AK) Antony publicly give a statement on this? Will he accept that his partymen are involved in the scam?"
BJP national secretary Srikant Sharma said “The Congress and Sonia Gandhi have been unmasked. Some time ago, she was forced to appear in lower court in the National Herald case, then came revelations in the Ishrat Jahan case, then how the Congress-led UPA changed the course of investigations in Malegaon and Samjhauta express blasts cases to shield the real culprits and blame it on 'Hindu terror' and now the AgustaWestland scam. While the law will take its own course, we will also fight it out politically, inside and outside of Parliament."
Now that the bribe-givers have been jailed in Italy, it is incumbent on the Narendra Modi government to find and name the bribe-takers, and bring them to book as per the due process of the law.
Clearly, the BJP smells a big kill in the Agusta VVIP chopper scam.