Lessons from Bofors: Allegations without action backfire, BJP should quickly probe AgustaWestland

The nation wants to know who was bribed for the AgustaWestland deal, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar implored in Parliament on Wednesday.

There was corruption in the AgustaWestland deal. Bring the guilty to book, act fast, the Italian court has given you the opportunity. Don't threaten us, if you have evidence, prosecute, argued his predecessor AK Antony.

Dhuan utha hai, aag to kahin hogi (smoke has arisen, there must be fire). Conduct an inquiry, punish the guilty, pleaded Congress leader AP (Ahmed Patel).

 Lessons from Bofors: Allegations without action backfire, BJP should quickly probe AgustaWestland

Representational image. Reuters

And then the Congress walked out, ostensibly because it was denied a time-bound probe monitored by the Supreme Court.

So, the nation wants to know.

The Congress wants to know.

The accused want to know.

As the proverb goes, when BJP, Congress are raazi (ready), toh kya karega qazi (nation)? Who will tell them who pocketed the money paid by the AgustaWestland middlemen?

In Indian politics, scandals and scams are like patients in an ICU of a hospital. Every time one surfaces, politicians, like avaricious hospital owners, start finding ways of keeping the metaphorical patient there as long as possible for their own benefit. It is kept alive with lies, propaganda, insinuations, counter-allegations and obfuscation as long as it keeps paying politically. And then, when there is nothing left to get out of them, the scandals are left to die a natural death.

It is evident that the BJP is keen to keep the Agusta controversy alive,  primarily because it sees in it an opportunity to corner the Gandhis, if not prosecute them. On Monday, India Today reported that the alleged  middleman in the deal, Christian Michel, has said that he was put under pressure by Indian investigative agencies to incriminate the Gandhi family.

According to Michel, a number of people contacted him with the proposal that he denounce any member of the Gandhi family and in turn, all the charges against him would be dropped. In a letter to the Registrar of the International Tribunal on 23 December, 2015, Michel wrote:

"At this time, it was made very clear to me through a number of obtuse channels, if I was willing to denounce and member of the Gandhi family relating to the so called VVIP helicopter scandal all charges and investigations against me would be dropped."

Michel is an accused in the case. He is wanted by Indian agencies for investigation in the case. His allegation could be a red herring, a canard or a ploy to gain sympathy. Or, like David Coleman Headley he might be speaking the truth. But, if the BJP's primary objective is to put the Gandhis behind bars, it will have to do much better than it did in Parliament than 'exposing' Rahul Gandhi's petty real estate deals in 2005.

It will need solid evidence that wipes the confident smiles off the faces of the Gandhis.

There is no evidence linking Congress president Sonia Gandhi to the scam, Judge Marco Maigo, president of the Court of Appeals in Italy, told NewsX on Tuesday. Maigo, who pronounced and signed the 225-page judgment in the scam, added that there was only one mention of Sonia's name in a translated fax which had originally been sent to James Christian Michel — one of the alleged middlemen in the scam.

Maigo also said that Gandhi had only "been indicated as someone who will fly in the VVIP helicopters" and that the former prime minister Manmohan Singh was mentioned in the same context.

When Parrikar read out his speech in Parliament at the end of the debate on the chopper deal, there wasn't a single mention of the Gandhis, not a shard of evidence that money had paid to them. Parrikar pointed out that several norms had been flouted in the deal: The cabin height was tailored for a single vendor, trials were held in a foreign country (as against the agreement that they would be held in Indian) conditions in a mock-up (since the selected AgustaWestland chopper was in the early stages of manufacturing) and that four extra helicopters were added to the original bid.

But, the real dispute here is not that the deal was clean.

Even the UPA government had accepted that there was corruption in the deal and handed over the case to the CBI and Enforcement Directorate. What the nation wants to know is this: Were the Gandhis bribed? Did the money go to AP? If so, is Patel that man?

The BJP should know that in India, politics of scams and scandals is a game of diminishing returns. Unless the accused is nailed with clinching evidence, mere noise and ''threats" — as Antony argued — ultimately trigger sympathy for the intended 'villain'.

Years ago, when VP Singh dragged Rajiv Gandhi into the Bofors scam, he was hailed as a hero. For months, Singh claimed in election speeches and interviews that he had a diary that carried account details of people who were paid Bofors kickbacks. A year later, unable to reveal the name the nation wanted to know, Singh lost his aura and then, the next election.

Back then, old-timers would recall, soon after Singh became prime minister that Rajiv implored the government to complete the probe and reveal the names of the guilty. "The nation should know if the leader of Opposition is corrupt," he said in Parliament.

The government failed to act and Singh lost credibility.

History will repeat itself if AgustaWestland turns out to be the NDA government's Bofors.

Updated Date: May 05, 2016 14:01:32 IST