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‘Choppergate’ and the spectre of UPA’s ‘Bofors moment’

CAG’s damning report on the AgustaWestland helicopter deal could not have come at a worse time for the scam-tainted Indian government

Gulf News

It may still be rather premature to say that this indeed is the ‘Bofors moment’ of India’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, but the current furore over alleged kickbacks worth €51 million (Dh248.3 million) involving the purchase of 12 VVIP choppers from AgustaWestland, for an estimated $610 million (Dh2.24 billion), has all the forebodings of the murky Swedish Howitzer gun deal that ultimately spelled electoral doom for then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and his Congress party.

In February 2010, under the tenure of the current United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, India entered into an agreement with Italian firm AgustaWestland to purchase 12 helicopters for use by the Communication Squadron of the Indian Air Force (IAF) to ferry the president and other VVIPs. However, the first whiff of controversy was felt on February 12 this year when Italian authorities arrested Giuseppe Orsi, the CEO of Finmeccanica, the parent company of AgustaWestland, on charges of accepting kickbacks. The very next day, India’s Defence Minister A.K. Antony ordered a probe into the alleged payoff.

Meanwhile, Indian TV news channel Times Now did an expose, blowing the lid off a scandal that may well make the financial irregularities over India’s purchase of the 155mm Howitzer cannon in the late 1980s seem like chicken feed. For starters, the kickbacks involved in the Bofors deal were estimated at $11 million, which, though unprecedented in India’s history until then, is small change compared to the $67.6 million said to have been paid in bribes to seal the helicopter deal in favour of the Italian company in 2010.

Antony has gone on record, saying: “Yes, corruption has taken place in the helicopter deal and bribes have been taken. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is pursuing the case very vigorously.”

And there lies the crux of the problem. It has been more than six months since a CBI probe was ordered into what the Indian media has dubbed ‘Choppergate’, but till date, India’s premier federal investigative agency has failed to make even one arrest. The Congress party and the UPA have come up with the lame excuse that the tailback of those under a cloud extends way beyond the jurisprudence of Indian authorities in a complex maze of corruption and duplicity. This is like saying that the case is too complicated to be solved.

The Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) office has come up with a damning report on the entire episode involving the Indian government’s purchase of the helicopters manufactured by AgustaWestland.

The CAG report has raised questions over the role played by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the then national security adviser (NSA), M.K. Narayanan, and two former naval chiefs — Fali H. Major and S.P. Tyagi — in tweaking certain key parameters of the operational requirements of the helicopters that saw the AgustaWestland-built AW-101 choppers make the cut from a pool of three shortlisted flying machines. According to the CAG report, the stipulated altitude requirement of 6,000 metres was reduced to 4,500 metres while the Ministry of Defence, at the behest of the PMO and in keeping with instructions from the NSA, mandated that the VVIP helicopters ought to have a minimum cabin height of 1.8 metres — a stipulation that saw AgustaWestland emerge as the lone vendor.

The Economic Times, citing excerpts from the CAG report, reported on August 14: “Our [CAG’s] examination of the process of framing service qualitative requirements [SQR] revealed that the SQRs so revised led to a resultant single-vendor situation.” This is a rather serious and damaging observation on the part of the CAG that the UPA government will find extremely difficult to fend off in a hurry.

While kickbacks in defence deals are quite common in the world, the Bofors scandal and its resultant upheaval in India’s political sphere are still fresh in public memory. It was one embarrassment that the Congress found too difficult to brush off. In terms of electoral fortunes, it saw the party and Rajiv booted out of power. But more damaging than the verdict at the hustings was the severe breach of trust and its concomitant public humiliation that prompted Rajiv to clarify before a tumultuous parliament: “I categorically declare in this highest forum of Indian democracy that neither I nor any member of my family received any consideration in this [Bofors] transaction.”

Only time will tell what ramifications the current controversy over the VVIP chopper deal will have for India’s present political dispensation led by Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. However, there is no doubt on one count at least. With the image of the UPA government already sullied by a series of scams, ‘Choppergate’ is one embarrassment that it could well have done without — more so, with elections looming.

With every passing day, this government has slipped deeper and deeper into policy paralysis and castigations such as the one by the CAG point to an invisible wound — that of moral bankruptcy.

The least that the government can do is to get to the bottom of the truth or at least show an honest intent of doing so.