Two days ahead of the opening of the budget session of Parliament, the UPA government went on an extensive damage control exercise.
If Prime Minister Manmohan Singh found talks with his British counterpart David Cameron an appropriate occasion to break his silence on the AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter bribery scandal, Defence Minister AK Antony held a long briefing to claim how committed he was to bringing out the "truth" in the case. Also both he and External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid were at pains to deny there was any rift in the government on the big question – cancellation of the chopper deal.
The opposition BJP, however, is not convinced. It has sensed blood and is all set to launch a full throttled attack against the ruling Congress when the session opens on Thursday. The opposition will have to wait till Friday to raise this issue since the opening day of the first session of the year is reserved for the presidential address.
Incidentally, the winter session of Parliament was rocked by another corruption scandal: Coalgate. The Bofors case has proved that unlike corruption in any other sector, such allegations in defence deals have potential to turn into an emotive issue. The BJP is therefore not buying the assurance of the prime minister and the defence minister that the government had "nothing to hide" and was ready to discuss the issue in Parliament. The party is bent on expanding on the widespread perception in the political and bureaucratic circles that it could not be Tyagis, Khaitan and such unsung middlemen who could swing such an important deal. There had to be some powerful person in the government set-up involved in the deal.
Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley says the issue cannot just be "talked out" in a day in Parliament. He insists that that the government must find out and reveal names of the bribe takers. "It has to be someone in the decision-making (loop) or someone who could influence decision making. It's ironical that when bribe given is known, quantum of bribe paid is known, the only thing unknown is name of bribe taker, who has to be in India."
The BJP core group had met yesterday, the BJP parliamentary party executive met today and the NDA will meet tomorrow to give final touches to their floor strategy in Parliament. Lok Sabha Speaker Meera Kumar will hold a meeting with leaders of all political parties tomorrow to impress upon them the need to ensure smooth functioning of Parliament and to discuss how the business list, apart from presentation of rail and general budget, should be formated. Given the mood of opposition parties, including the Left, the Trinamool Congress and the Samajwadi Party, the Lok Sabha Speaker is unlikely to succeed in her endeavor.
The sense of urgency in the government to appear to be clean could be clearly seen from the fact that Manmohan Singh referred to the AgustaWestland helicopter deal in his opening address to media on his meeting with British PM. "I also conveyed to the prime minister our very serious concerns regarding allegations about unethical means used in securing the 2010 contract for AgustaWestland helicopters. I told him that we have sought an explanation from the company by 22 February to examine if the contractual provisions on unethical practices and the Integrity Pact have been violated. I have sought full assistance from the UK in this case. Prime Minister David Cameron has assured me of the cooperation of his Government in the investigations," he said.
On his part, David Cameron assured Singh all support: "In terms of AgustaWestland, we will respond to any request for information. I am glad that the Italian authorities are looking into this issue in detail, as Finmeccanica is an Italian company…In Britain, we have introduced anti-bribery legislation that is probably the strongest anywhere in the world and we will root out any problems of bribery and corruption wherever and whenever they appear."
The British connection in the deal comes through two facts, apart from British firm’s holding in the AgustaWestland, one of the principal middleman Christian Michel, who is suspected to have taken care of political favour in UPA II establishment, is a British national. According to an Italian newspaper, Christian Michel’s inherited contacts in the ruling Congress party from his father Max Michel Richard who was "close to the Congress party" during the 1980s and 90s.
The "mysterious" British citizen received 60 percent (around Rs 210 crore) of the kickback amount of €51 million (around Rs 360 crore) from Finmeccanica, the manufacturers of AgustaWestland choppers.