Corruption is part of the collective psyche, an inbuilt incentive for development in India. Or, so we thought.
In February 2013, when the Agusta Westland scam surfaced in the media, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi appeared on a TV channel and thus opined: “Bribes are an essential part of doing business internationally.” In an interview with the state-owned TV channel RAI 3, he argued giving bribes to secure international contracts could not be “considered a criminal act.” And that magistrates were forcing Italian companies to “commit economic suicide”.
The deal Berlusconi brushed away as part of international business etiquette is now threatening to explode in the face of the former prime minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. Emboldened by a recent ruling by an Italian appeals court — the Indian equivalent of a high court — the BJP is keen to push an aggressive Congress on the back foot in Parliament by bringing a deal for buying choppers from Agusta to the forefront of politics.
The modus operandi is simple: Do not let the Congress occupy the moral high crowd by raising a din over the failures of the Narendra Modi government and its recent escapades in Uttarakhand.
It serves the Congress right. Such was its record during the Manmohan Singh government that even if somebody had accused the party of accepting bribes from aliens for donating land on Mars, people would have believed the allegation.
The Agusta deal was always a smoking gun. And the BJP is making the most of it.
In 2010, the Indian government agreed to buy 12 choppers for VIPs from the Italian manufacturer Finmeccanica. The deal, worth just above Rs 3,500 crore, was signed after plenty of delays, primarily because the Italian firm did not meet the selection criteria immediately. The Indian government was keen to buy choppers with the capability of flying over a certain height, but the Finmeccanica birds failed to cross the height barrier. According to reports, however, the then Air Force chief SP Tyagi allegedly relaxed the conditions and allowed Finmeccanica compete for the tender.
Italian investigators, while probing connections between the mafia, local companies and their government, stumbled upon the chopper deal in 2013 and discovered that bribes in excess of Rs 120 crore were paid to Indian middlemen to seal the aforementioned deal.
Earlier this month, Giuseppe Orsi, former chief of Finmeccanica, was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison. Bruno Spagnolini — who headed chopper division AgustaWestland — was given a four-year jail term. The court also ordered the two executives to pay €7.5 million ($8.5 million), a sum corresponding to the amount deemed to have been allegedly paid in bribes, an agency report said. The two officials were held guilty of paying bribes to Indian officials for performing their duty.
When the allegations first surfaced, the UPA government cancelled the deal, recovered the advance paid to the chopper manufacturer and instituted a probe against the alleged middlemen and beneficiaries including Tyagi and his family. Ironically, while those guilty of paying bribes have been tried, found guilty and sentenced to jail in Italy, investigations in India are still dragging along.
In its April 2016 judgment, the Italian court trying Finmeccanica officials, alluded to a note from a middleman reportedly describing Sonia Gandhi as the "driving force" behind the deal. Enthused by the exposé, the BJP has decided to make the most of it by attacking the Congress in Parliament.
Will the strategy work?
When the Italian entrepreneurs were arrested, the UPA government also accepted corruption in the deal, manifest in its decision to hand over the inquiry to the CBI. When the scam surfaced, the defence ministry went after the Italian company and recovered the payment made to Finmeccanica as advance. The Congress claims it was the whistleblower in the case and the probe has to be concluded by the BJP government.
On Tuesday, former defence minister AK Antony argued that when the allegation surfaced in the media, the UPA immediately ordered a CBI inquiry. "We cancelled the contract and fought the case in the Milan court. We won the case and got back all the money we paid in advance by bank guarantee. The Indian government has gained more (information) now. My request to the Indian government is that the probe has been going on for a long time, and so please speed up the inquiry and find the truth," he said.
The battle over the choppers has just begun.
Be prepared for a long and stormy ride.