AgustaWestland scam: Appointment of Aljo Joseph as Christian Michel's advocate wasn't gaffe but a shrewd Congress move

The appointment of a youth Congress office bearer as the advocate for Christian Michel James, the extradited middleman at the centre of Rs 3,600 crore AgustaWestland chopper scam, is curious. Why would the party — which is fighting a perception battle over the accused’s alleged links with the Gandhi family and its trusted aides — make the connection obvious by asking a lawyer from its youth wing to argue the fixer’s case in CBI court? It smacks of political hara-kiri at any point in time, leave alone in the middle of an election season. Has the Congress lost its marbles?

When the connection came to light on Wednesday, a seemingly “embarrassed” Congress claimed that it had no prior knowledge that advocate Aljo K Joseph, the national in-charge for Youth Congress’s legal department, is appearing as the counsel for Michel. Youth Congress spokespersons hurriedly claimed that Joseph had appeared in his “professional capacity” and for that “sin,” he has been expelled from the party with immediate effect.

The Congress top leadership, too, distanced itself from Joseph with Randeep Surjewala putting the onus on the party’s youth wing. “We (Congress) have nothing to do with it. I don’t know the person and I have no knowledge about it… this is for the IYC to say.”

For his part, Joseph told news agency ANI that he was helping Michel — who is at the centre of alleged political payoffs to the tune of 70 million euros that CBI suspects was paid as commission to the “Family” — at the behest of a “friend” who has some connections in Dubai from where Michel was deported.

Interestingly, soon after appearing for Michel in CBI court, the youth Congress lawyer was spotted at the Congress headquarters where he met Deepak Babaria, AICC general secretary in charge of Madhya Pradesh.

Barbaria was quoted, as saying, by The Indian Express in a report that Joseph was helping “us in preparing material for training our workers and candidates on EVMs and other poll-related activities.”

Incidentally, the BJP has alleged that not just Joseph, two other lawyers who have links with Congress have also defended Michel in the CBI court. At a news conference on Wednesday, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra said: “Apart from Joseph, Michel’s lawyers were Vishnu Shankar, who is the son of a Kerala Congress leader and Sriram Parakkat, who has been a member of Congress’ student wing, the National Students Union of India. All three have worked under top Congress lawyers like Salman Khurshid and Kapil Sibal.” The BJP called it “extended hand of 10 Janpath.”

It all sounds extremely daft. The Congress, which is busy attacking Narendra Modi over Rafale, should have been extremely careful in not letting the perception grow that there is some link between the scam accused Michel and party’s top leadership, instead it apparently went out of its way to reinforce the opposite impression. The party did expel Joseph and made all the right noises, but that explanation won’t find a buyer.

Media has been quick to interpret Congress’s action as a “goof-up” and a massive “self-goal”. It is likely a misinterpretation. A political party as old, entrenched and experienced as the Congress, which held power for six decades since Independence and has a bevy of battle-hardened career politicians, seasoned lawyers, data crunchers, social media team, analysts and the works in its team, cannot make such a childish mistake. The theory is attractive but lazy and implausible.

Even if, for arguments’ sake, we contend that Joseph may have kept Congress in the dark, the timeline of events and the fact that two other lawyers with Congress links were allegedly defending Michel in court points to not a goof-up but a plan. It is too much of a coincidence.

Let us now turn the theory on its head and posit that it was a calculated move on the part of the Congress to appoint the lawyers, knowing fully well that such an act won’t go unnoticed. The question then is, what would the Congress gain by subjecting itself to public embarrassment and potentially handing a weapon to BJP?

To understand the motivation behind Congress’s actions, we have to turn our attention to the dynamics between Michel and the so-called “Family”, a word that appears multiple times in hand-written diaries detailing alleged bribes paid for the choppers.

File image of Aljo Joseph. Twitter @ani

File image of Aljo Joseph. Twitter @ani

The part-typed and part-handwritten diaries that were recovered during raids at the residence of Guido Haschke's mother in Lugano, Switzerland, in April 2012, apparently refer to a “08.05.2011 agreement between Michel and Haschke (another European middleman), which says that ‘Christian James Michel agreed to reduce the amount (his commission) to €30 million from the originally agreed upon €42 million for the 'team' to honour the commission to the ‘family’ in full’."

Journalist for The Pioneer J Gopikrishnan had mentioned in a 2013 report the 64-page chargesheet (that was filed in the Italian court), that details how the document seized from the bedroom of Haschke’s mother “talks about a dispute between another middleman Christian Michel and Haschke on sharing the commission amount. Michel was forced to accept around €12 million (around 85 crore) to accommodate “the family.”

According to a report in The Times of India, a “second note, titled ‘budget expenditure items’ and dictated to Haschke in 2008, mentioned acronyms of individuals who were to be allegedly paid bribes totalling 30 million euros. The mentions included ‘FAM’ and ‘AP’, both mentioned under a head captioned ‘POL’ which Italian investigators interpreted as referring politicians.” Michel has denied writing these notes and has accused Haschke of framing him.

It is plausible that Michel is the fulcrum of the scam and central to the political payoffs. He had undertaken 300 trips to this country between 1997 and 2013 but when the chopper deal came under scrutiny in India, the British national took refuge in the UAE to avoid appearing before Indian courts. He even reportedly tried to flee UAE twice when it became apparent that extradition was imminent.

Michel, who is perceived as a Gandhi family loyalist, has so far steadfastly denied having paid any bribes to the Gandhis and has claimed that the CBI had offered him a “deal” to buy freedom in exchange for implicating the Gandhi family and Congress leaders in the scandal. CBI has refuted the charges.

Incidentally, as a report in Firstpost points out, Michel had in a letter dated 15 March, 2008, wrote to Peter Hulet, the then head of India region sales and liaison for AgustaWestland, saying, “Dear Peter, since Mrs Gandhi is the driving force behind the VIP, she will no longer fly with MI8. Mrs Gandhi and her closest advisers are the aim of the High Commissioner, senior adviser Prime Minister Manmohan Singh obviously the main figure, then there’s Ahmed Patel Secretary.” Amid a political firestorm, Congress denied the charges and in July 2018, after he was granted bail in Dubai, “Michel retracted his statement against the Congress leader and said that he had named Sonia and senior Congress leaders on the behest of the CBI.”

It is not difficult to conclude that Michel’s confession will decide the fate of the case against the Gandhis. If he continues to issue denial and holds on to his retraction, it may be difficult for the CBI to crack the case unless it possesses incriminating evidence. This is where the rubber hits the road.

The charade played by the Congress over appointment of lawyers might be seen as a dog whistle aimed at Michel to provide him moral support and a tacit assurance that the party has his back. All that Michel needs to do is to keep his nerve under sustained interrogation. In the bargain a few pawns may have been sacrificed and a temporary embarrassment courted but it is a small price to pay for Michel’s silence. Else, if the middleman sings, there could be a political tsunami.

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Updated Date: Dec 07, 2018 10:00:39 IST

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