All You Wanted to Know About the AgustaWestland VVIP Chopper Scam
(Photo: Lijumol Joseph/ <b>The Quint</b>)
(Photo: Lijumol Joseph/ The Quint)

All You Wanted to Know About the AgustaWestland VVIP Chopper Scam

On Friday evening (9 December 2016), the CBI arrested former air chief marshal SP Tyagi, along with Gautam Khaitan and Julie Tyagi.

Does the Milan Court have clear evidence of Indian individuals who were paid ‘bribes’ or who received dubious payments in some form? Do we KNOW who exactly those individuals are?

The conviction of former Finmeccanica head Guiseppe Orsi and the head of the chopper division of AgustaWestland, Bruno Spagnolini, was on the basis of bribes being paid to persons overseas. The amount of bribes paid is also mentioned.

The needle of suspicion points to specific persons. But one cannot expect an Italian court to try and find evidence of criminal wrongdoing in India. That’s the job for Indians (which predictably we never do).

Does the Milan Court judgement merely ‘embarrass’ or does it actually ‘incriminate’ Sonia Gandhi?  What about her name being mentioned in a letter from middleman Christian Michel to Peter Hulet, head of sales at AW India, as the ‘main driving force’ behind the deal?

The Milan Court of Appeals is like an Indian high court. What is embarrassing here for Sonia Gandhi is the observations made in the judgement.

One, that the UPA government(of which she was the power behind the throne) showed “substantial disregard to arrive at a full explanation of facts (was) effectively demonstrated by the procedural behaviour of the Indian Ministry of Defence.” In other words, the MoD was less than cooperative in investigating the scandal. It took one full year for the MoD to send three documents to the Italian court.

Second,the judgement notes the letter written by one of the middlemen Christian Michel to the India head of AgustaWestland, Peter Hulet, which says .. “since Mrs Gandhi is the driving force behind the VIP, she will no longer fly with Mi8 …”This is deeply embarrassing but cannot be cited as explicit proof of her involvement. Since she held no government position, she was anyway not entitled to fly by VIP aircraft.  But the revelations undermine her politically and could leave her vulnerable to legal action.

(Photo: PTI/ Altered by <b>The Quint</b>)
(Photo: PTI/ Altered by The Quint)

What is the evidence against former IAF chief Air Marshal Shashi Tyagi?

The charge against Tyagi is that as air chief he reduced the height requirement for the VIP helicopter, thereby allowing AgustaWestland to re-enter the race. The earlier requirement called fora chopper that could fly at 18,000 feet, which the AW chopper could not fulfill. The previous air chief had opposed the reduction in height requirement.

But as the court also notes, there was no proof that by changing the height requirement Tyagi was acting against the public interest (it has been argued that a lower height is practical since how many times does a prime minister fly to Siachen or other high altitude areas).

The court judgement has no less than 17 chapters on the role of Tyagi, describing him as the “Indian public officer.” Initial investigations by the Italian prosecutor said that Tyagi had personally met middleman Guido Haschke and the bribe money was channelled through Tyagi’s cousins Julie, Sandeep and Dosca. The judgement records that, “in the absence of contrary indications, it must be concluded that the reward bestowed to ‘Tyagi family’ for their work in support of AW in relation to the race of the Government (of) India for military helicopters amounts to €10,500,000.”

It says payments to Tyagi and his family, including three cousins, were made in cash through wire transfers.

What about the involvement of Manmohan Singh and Ahmed Patel?

As regards Manmohan Singh, there is a March 2013 handwritten note by Orsi (then in prison) which says, “call Monti or Ambassador Teracciano in my name to ask him to call the PM Singh.” The court suspects this note determined the outcome of the request to India for judicial assistance.  All they got were three documents a year later.

As for Ahmed Patel, there is speculation the reference to “AP” in a so called “budget sheet”of bribes to be paid to politicians was Ahmed Patel with three million euros mentioned against his name. Pranab Mukherjee, who was defence minister in 2005 when the AgustaWestland deal was cleared, is mentioned as a close adviser.

Are the references to Manmohan Singh and Ahmed Patel sufficient to beginlegal proceedings against them, to send them to jail?

The judgement notes the handwritten references to “Pol” (politicians?), “Bur”(bureaucracy?) and “Fam” (family?) and the supposed quantum of payments to bemade. But that is too vague for going ahead with prosecuting them.

There needs to be a credible investigation in India to identify who any of these people could be. There is plenty of suspicion and out there in the street people have formed their own opinions. But opinion is not proof.

As this chopper was meant for VVIP duty it would appear that the role of others in the decision-making is going unscrutinised.

This is precisely the point Tyagi is making. The AW chopper was being acquired for VIP duty and the Special ProtectionGroup was the key player, which brought in the Prime Minister’s Office. This was not a procurement for the air force so the air chief could not have decided in favour of AgustaWestland.

In fact, if one looks at government documents where the decision in favour of AW was made, it would seem to be a collective decision involving not just Tyagi, but also the then Defence Secretary Shashikant Sharma (now CAG), then National Security Adviser MK Narayanan, then SPG chief etc. Yet Tyagi is the only one who faces charges.
(Photo: Reuters/ Altered by <b>The Quint</b>)
(Photo: Reuters/ Altered by The Quint)

Should Indian agencies do independent investigations of their own,instead of relying only on ‘mentions’ in the letters/notes that have been used as evidence in the Italian courts?

There are serious doubts about the ability of Indian agencies like the CBI to function independently of the political executive. Indian agencies lack credibility because of political interference. The heads of such agencies are generally those deemed ‘manageable’ by politicians. When the agencies do deliver results, it is usually under the direction of the Supreme Court.

Does the Milan Court have the complete and specific bank account details into which payments were made? Do they KNOW the names of the account holders of these payments? Are these mentioned along with these details in the Milan judgement?

The Milan Court judgement runs into more than200 pages, all in Italian, and one can expect more revelations in the days ahead. The conviction of Orsi and Spagnolini completes the Italian end of the investigations. Since Indian nationals are alleged to be involved, it is for India to carry forward the probe, to determine if the allegations are true, was the money paid in India and so on.

(Surya Gangadharan is former international affairs editor, CNN-IBN and NDTV)

Also Read:
Sonia, Manmohan Dare BJP Over AgustaWestland Deal - Roundup
Modi Govt Slept Over Chopper Scam, Tried to Aid Company: AK Antony

(This explainer from The Quint’s archives was originally published on 28 April 2016. It has been reposted after the alleged middleman Christian Michel was extradited to India.)

(The Quint is now available on Telegram and WhatsApp. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to our Telegram and WhatsApp channels)

Follow our Opinion section for more stories.

    Also Watch