Chopper deal: Why Jaswant Singh deserves more respect

Why is everyone in a hurry to ignore Jaswant Singh? Soon after the senior BJP leader said the parameters for the purchase of helicopters were indeed changed during 2003, the BJP has been quick to distance itself from his comment. The media have been chary of debating his comment with the importance it deserves. Even the Congress is coy. Something’s amiss here.

Let’s deconstruct the AgustaWestland deal. The entire controversy revolves around the 64-page chargesheet submitted by Italian investigating authorities. The major theme in the chargesheet is the tweaking of parameters by the Indian authorities to suit the interests of the makers, Finmeccanica, and the money that exchanged several hands, in India and abroad, to facilitate the process.

Jaswant Singh. PTI

Jaswant Singh. PTI

The first part of the theme is where the rub lies as far as India is concerned. When the country started looking for VVIP helicopters that would prove efficient in the high altitude Himalayan terrains, the altitude requirement was 6,000 metres. However, in the initial tender only Eurocopter was found qualifying for the bid. Since the government did not want to have a single vendor and wanted more bidders, it sought to change the altitude requirement.

In 2003, the then National Security Advisor, Brajesh Mishra, urged Atal Behari Vajpayee, the prime minister then, to change the norms to attract more bidders. Thus, a decision was taken to bring down the altitude requirements to 4,500 metres. The NDA’s position made sense. Jaswant Singh clarified as much in his interview to news channels yesterday. Even the prime suspect in the case former Indian Air Force (IAF) chief SP Tyagi said it was a professional decision, not a political one.

By now it is established that the decision to change the parameters started during the NDA rule. In 2005, during the rule of UPA I, the changes were incorporated after a process of consultations involving the IAF, SPG, NSA and the defence ministry. Now, if the entire argument in the case is reduced to changing the parameters, the blame should rest equally on both the BJP-led NDA and the Congress-led UPA.

If corruption was involved in the changes in the bid conditions, then both stand accused short-changing the country. It is possible that the same backroom manipulators were active during when both the governments were power and they were instrumental in swinging the deal in favour of AgustaWestland. And they had political benefactors with shared interest in the chopper deal across the governments.

The argument here is, the changes in the requirements are not the primary issue in the Indian context. Even having a single vendor is allowed in certain cases. The real issue, however, is who all pocketed the money and to what extent the rot spreads. By focussing excessively on the political aspect of the story - it is being compared to Bofors - the media is missing the woods for the trees. Jaswant Singh’s should have been a sobering voice in the shrill discourse, but for some reason he has been made irrelevant.

Till now we have not heard a word about the other companies in competition with AgustaWestland and their tenders. We still don’t know why this particular chopper was chosen over the others despite being more expensive. Someone must find the answer. The real story and the real culprits lie there. If the case of the Italian authorities fails to stand up in their court, it would be a huge embarrassment for all. It’s for the simple fact that we have bought the story in the chargesheet without a shade of critical questioning.

Someone has made money out of the deal, it’s better if media focussed on this part of the story more than the less significant ones such as changes in the requirement conditions.