For those who are hoping the AgustaWestland chopper deal will become another Bofors and accelerate the political decline of Signora Sonia Gandhi, the Congress has sent out a different message through its aggressive stance in Parliament: Dream on.
The Congress has instead come out aggressively against the Narendra Modi government, behaving more like the prosecutor than the accused.
"I am not scared of these baseless allegations. All the accusations are false. Let there be an impartial probe, the truth will come out," Sonia said outside Parliament on Wednesday.
"This government has been there for two years. Why has the inquiry (started by the UPA) not been completed? What is the government doing?" the Congress president questioned.
In the Rajya Sabha, senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad asked: "Why was AgustaWestland allowed to participate in Make in India when it was blacklisted by the UPA government?"
The party's insistence on a discussion and quick probe has led to an amusing scenario even by Indian standards. It seems both the Congress and the BJP are keen to discuss the chopper deal, claim the role of whistleblower in the case, point fingers at each other and demand a quick investigation.
So, why is the Congress putting on a brave face? Isn't the party scared of the repercussions of a discussion on a deal where corruption has been firmly established?
The case against Signora Sonia
Prima facie, and on the basis of information available in public domain, the BJP will have to do much more to corner Sonia Gandhi than rely just on vague insinuations and allegations. The only ammunition the BJP has against the Congress president is the appeal panel's reference to documents that say Sonia is an influential person and the AgustaWestland representatives should meet the Congress president and other key leaders close to her.
The Italian court has, however, not identified the recipients of the bribe. It hasn't provided any evidence that the middlemen actually met the Congress president and her advisors like Ahmed Patel and Oscar Fernandes, whose names figure in the correspondence. The court has not been able to track the flow of kickbacks to India either.
According to a report in The Hindu, Italian middleman James Christian Michel, who has been accused by the CBI of outing the funds, has also given a clean chit to the Gandhis. Michel claims he had never met the Congress president or a “single Gandhi” in his life. The accused middleman says he is willing to depose before the CBI, which is probing the deal, to answer all questions related to the scam.
So, unless the CBI or some other Indian agency comes up with concrete evidence of the involvement of the Gandhis in the deal, the allegations will remain just that. And, this explains Sonia's aggression and the Congress' counterattack.
AgustaWestland vs Bofors
There are many similarities between the Bofors deal and the chopper scam.
Yet, it is quite unlike the gun deal that rocked Rajiv Gandhi's government in the 1980s and led to the rise of VP Singh. Earlier this month, an Italian appeals commission — equivalent to the Indian high court — recently sentenced two senior executives of Finmeccanica, the Italian parent company of AgustaWestland, to jail for cooking the books and paying bribes to secure a deal for sale of 12 choppers to the Indian government in 2010.
The appeals court sentenced Giuseppe Orsi, former chief of Finmeccanica, to four-and-a-half years in prison. Bruno Spagnolini — who headed AgustaWestland — was given a four-year jail term. The court also ordered the two executives to pay €7.5 million euros ($8.5 million), a sum corresponding to the amount deemed to have been allegedly paid in bribes, a report said.
So, just like Swedish Radio that first reported the Bofors scandal, the lid on the AgustaWestland deal was also blown by investigators in the country wherein the bribes originated. The chopper deal, worth around Rs 3,600 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. But, according to reports, the then Air Force chief SP Tyagi allegedly relaxed the conditions and allowed Finmeccanica to compete for the tender.
Initial investigations had indicted 12 persons, including Tyagi, his brothers and Satish Bagrodia, brother of Congress leader Santosh, who was a minister in the UPA, in the scam.
The CBI’s preliminary inquiry had revealed Guido Ralph Haschke, a middleman in the chopper deal, had entered into several consultancy contracts with Agusta through his Tunisia-based company Gordian Services Sarl. Between June 2004 and March 2005, he made two remittances — of €126,000 and €200,000 — in close succession, to the Tyagi brothers, in the name of “consultancy contracts”. CBI has alleged the Tyagis received an unquantified amount from Haschke and another middleman, Carlo Gerosa.
Similarities with the Bofors deal end here.
The Congress that brushed aside the Bofors allegations during the Rajiv era, acted with uncharacteristic haste when the AgustaWestland scam surfaced.
The UPA government cancelled the deal and recovered the amount it had paid as an advance to the manufacturer. It also ordered a CBI inquiry and blacklisted Finmeccanica.
The Congress is now hoping that it can claim the moral high ground on the basis of its actions and put the BJP in the dock by asking why the ban on Finmeccanica was lifted by the Modi government.