VVIP Chopper scam: UPA arguments ring hollow

The ever so vocal Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh while marshalling out his party’s defence on AgustaWestland chopper bribery scandal asked “what more could have been done” by the UPA government.

His position was that since defence minister AK Antony had already ordered a CBI investigation following the arrest of Giuseppe Orsi, the current CEO of AgustaWestland and current CEO of its parent company Finmeccanica Group by the Italian government, the matter should rest there.

Official records clearly suggest that the UPA Government was aware of bribery charges for about a year but did not pursue them with any vigor.

Now contrast Defence Minister AK Antony assertiveness on Wednesday that “nobody will be spared”, with what he said only two months back during the winter session of Parliament on 26 November 2012 in the Lok Sabha in a written reply, in response to a question from SK Saidul Haque.

PTI

PTI

In his reply Antony had begun by saying that it had come to the notice of the Ministry of Defence through several reports, both in Indian and foreign media, starting from February 2012 that Italian prosecutors had begun a probe into alleged unethical dealings by Finmeccanica, Italy, the parent company of Agusta Westland, and the probe has been widened to include the Indian Contract.

He then went on to say that MoD had sought a report from the Indian Embassy in Rome. Reports received indicated that Italian Magistrates / Prosecutors were conducting preliminary investigations about allegations of financial malpractices occurring within M/s Finmeccanica and its subsidiaries.

“On MoD’s request, the Embassy of India took up the matter with Government of Italy for their official position on the matter and intimated us that they have no official position on the issue in view of the independence of judiciary and Italian prosecutors being neither under the executive nor accountable to it…. Indian Embassy in Rome has taken up the matter with the Naples Prosecutor’s office. No feedback has been received so far in this regard.”

“MoD is constantly pursuing the matter and committed to take suitable penalty measures in the event of allegations being substantiated. However, in the absence of any specific information in this regard, Government has not ordered any formal inquiry into the case so far”, Antony had said in his reply.

The burden of Atony’s rather longish 1000 word written reply was – yes, his ministry was aware of a potential scam but it was Italy which was to give information to India at its convenience, while the UPA government was making an inquiry on its own and proactively pursuing the matter with Italy.

The opposition BJP is targeting the government precisely on this count. “Antony, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi must explain why this delay of one year in ordering the probe. Was it because of the Italian connection? Who is the government trying to protect?”, asked BJP chief spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad. Knowing the political sensitivity of the word 'Italy' for the Congress, the BJP leader left it open to varying connotations without further elaboration.

The Left parties have also joined in to question the Government on the delay in ordering probe. The ghost of corruption is going to haunt UPA 2 once again in the coming budget session. This is also the most handy ammunition for the opposition in the run-up to the next parliamentary elections and it will undoubtedly use all kinds of tactics to keep the issue alive.

The fact that the name of a service chief, former Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi has come up in the bribery allegations by itself is a most serious issue. But the opposition parties seem more keen to find a political angle, as the deal was signed in February 2010. The former Air Force chief has denied the accusations saying the Air headquarters had little role to play and a purchase of this kind was within the domain of defence ministry. Also the deal was signed in 2010 three years after he had retired in 2007. The contract was floated during his tenure in office in 2006.

The deal has started causing tremors in the power corridors. The UPA government would need more substantive arguments than playing on personal integrity of defence minister AK Antony.