Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar addressed the Lok Sabha on the issue of bribes exchanged during the VVIP chopper deal between Italian company AgustaWestland and the previous Indian government on Friday.
Parrikar’s claims earned him accolades from his party people. But how accurate were they?
Parrikar: After the present government took over, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) have been rigorously pursuing all aspects of the investigation.
How rigorously the government has been pursuing the investigation can be debated. The UPA banned AgustaWestland and no action was initiated against the parent company Finmeccanica. The NDA went along with that. It’s clear that neither government wanted to press the issue because Finmeccanica’s subsidiaries are involved in the manufacture and sale of either components or complete weapon systems which India has been eyeing for outright purchase or joint development. So restrictions were imposed on a prospective basis only. These were relaxed by the Modi government for the Make in India programme. The government wanted the agreement with AgustaWestland for the supply of 100 light utility helicopters for the Navy to move forward. The company had fielded its AW-109 choppers for this deal under the ‘Buy and Make in India’ category.
Parrikar: It appears that an invincible hand was guiding actions or inactions by CBI & ED. UPA, instead of taking action against the company, wrote to the External Affairs Ministry, embassy & court. CBI registered an FIR in the case on 12 March 2013 based on a reference made by Defence Ministry on 12 February 2013. But the CBI didn’t bother to forward a copy of the FIR to the Enforcement Directorate for nine months. Strangely, the ED did not act on the FIR till July 2014.
There’s always drama in politics and Parrikar can be forgiven for using the term “invincible hand” (although one wonders if the term “invisible hand” would not have been more appropriate). Clearly, Parrikar is alluding to the person or persons who, in his view, orchestrated the decision in favour of AgustaWestland and later tried to delay and sidetrack the investigation. In this case, there seems little doubt he is referring to the Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi. That the Congress showed no urgency in taking forward the investigation is a huge question mark against it.
Parrikar: What we could not do in Bofors, maybe we can do it in AgustaWestland.
Such remarks leave the impression that the BJP is out to get the Congress no matter what. Politics, it would seem, is paramount and the investigation is secondary. The BJP’s references to a “Congress mukt Bharat” underscore this although one could say the Congress has done more to undercut itself.
Parrikar: AgustaWestland was favoured at “every stage of the acquisition process starting with the changes in the SQR (Staff Quality Requirements)”.
This is yet to be proved although the circumstantial evidence in favour of this view is quite obvious: The reduction of the altitude parameters, the requirement of a certain height for the cabin, three engines, the fact that the helicopter in question did not exist, was under development, a point which necessitated the trials to be done in the UK far from the demanding Indian environment and eyes. But equally, reducing the altitude made sense as how many times does the prime minister fly to Siachen or some other high altitude area? The cabin height was insisted upon (we are told) by the Special Protection Group which wanted the PM’s bodyguards to be standing upright. This is something which is being incorporated in the design for the US President’s new helicopter. But does it really make the prime minister more secure? What if the helicopter suffers a malfunction and the pilot loses control? The three-engine requirement is odd. It would have made the Indian prime minister the only VIP to travel in such a chopper. Even the US President travels in a twin-engine chopper and his security is regarded as the most sophisticated worldwide.
The fact that the helicopter was under development, and in that sense untried, goes against every grain of security. Most acquisitions of this kind worldwide are based on tried and tested platforms. The world’s most widely used VIP helicopter is made by Sikorsky which was eliminated in the Indian competition.
The CAG noted that the offsets allowed were not compatible with the DPP.
(Surya Gangadharan is former international affairs editor, CNN-IBN and NDTV)