Agusta-Westland probe goes the Bofors way
What purpose will a probe serve now?
The Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) is all set to close the probe into the alleged payoffs to the Indian politicians and other big wigs involved in the reported scam in the purchase of 12 Augusta Westland AW 101 helicopters for the travel of Indian Prime Minister to high altitude areas in the Himalayas from the Italian firm Finmeccanica.
Soon after the Indian Government finalized the deal in 2010, the media gossip about a payoff in the deal started. This was the time the Commonwealth Games were held successfully despite the fact that it rained right into October that year till a day before the Games opened at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium. The UPA Government at the Centre and Sheila Dikshit government in Delhi had added a feather in their respective caps. Everyone appreciated the Games and its organization. But the BJP routed in the 2009 general elections, returned to its pet theme castigating Congress as “corrupt, corrupt, corrupt” and the Left, also in a similar state, happily joined in providing the Sanghis the much needed credibility. The brazenness of Suresh Kalmadi convinced the the people of the charge and made them even more angry, adding to Sheila and the Congress’ woes.
Having agonizingly witnessed the fate of Rajiv Gandhi government because of the Bofors payoff campaign, also led by the Sanghis and happily swallowed by the Left and other secular parties then, Congress president and the UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi seemed to have anticipated where the Sanghis would hit that it would hurt the most and so had consciously persuaded Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to make A K Antony the Defence Minister, soon as Pranab Mukherjee took over Finance. Now the world knows that Antony is not particularly brilliant. But no one has ever been able to raise a finger against the former Defence Minister’s personal integrity in money matters. Sonia believed she had closed at least one window for her detractors to attack her with—scam and corruption in Defence deals and true every single Defence deal was above board. It is another thing that an over cautious Antony did not let too many purchases take place.
As a matter of fact even this Agusta-Westland AW 101 helicopter deal was all but finalized before Antony took over from his predecessor Pranab Mukherjee, not to say that Pranab an extremely thorough person, would have left any loopholes for anyone to find a fault with. The inter office rivalries between two groups of management in Finmeccanica led one set to level corruption charges against the other and the matter went right upto the Milan court. This immediately caught the fancy of Sonia baiters and Subramanian Swamy, Ram Jethmalani and the whole saffron brigade got together to immediately make a connection between Italy and Sonia. Swamy even named Sonia’s sisters still living in Italy as those who received the bribe on behalf of the UPA chairperson. Others alleged that it was Sonia’s political secretary Ahmed Patel who received the bribe money, obviously on Sonia’s behalf.
It is another thing that whatever little was coming out of the Italian probe, was pointing a finger at former chief of the Indian Air Force Air Marshal S P Tyagi and his family members. Now the problem was that Tyagi was a regular at the Chanakyapuri based high profile Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) created as a think tank for the Sanghis by the then Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani. The current National Security Adviser of this Government then IB chief under Advani, Ajit Doval, headed the VIF during the sabbatical forced on him because of the ouster of NDA government in 2004. This made Tyagi’s proximity to the Sangh brigade too evident for it to be denied. It therefore became a wee bit cumbersome for the Sanghis to pin it down on Sonia while avoiding any barbs on their chosen Air chief. In the end nothing is proved against Tyagi either. But the cropping up of Tyagi name slightly hindered the Sanghi objective, despite the best efforts of Swamy-Jethmalani duo to turn this one into another Bofors. In any case by then the Sangh duly aided again by the Left had raised the crescendo of corruption against Sonia so high that one little Agusta-Westland payoff hardly made any serious difference.
That’s like the Bofors era, once Rajiv Gandhi had been successfully besmirched by Bofors by the triumvirate of The Indian Express Editor in Chief Arun Shourie, The Hindu Editor N Ram and The Statesman Editor C R Irani, other things hardly mattered. Those who worked in the Express in those turbulent late 80s would recall that reams and reams of documents procured through Shourie’s network used to be lying on the desk of each reporter, some exposing the then Home Minister Buta Singh, some attacking Haryana chief minister Bhajan Lal some targeting the then Health Minister B Shankaranand. Every day these stories were appearing in the Indian Express. But who remembers even a single one of them? What mattered was the perception. Once the media (then only the print) successfully pronounced Rajiv Gandhi guilty of taking bribes no amount of protestations worked. The slogan “Gali, gali mein shor hai, Rajiv Gandhi chor hai” sold. Successive non-Congress governments first in 1989-90 and then from 1998 to 2004, together with the BJP’s legal eagle Arun Jaitley hounded Sonia for 30 years. Yet after condemning the Bofors deal as a selloff they used the gun successfully in thwarting the Pakistani intrusion into Kargil during the NDA regime under George Fernandes as Defence Minister. George was in the forefront demanding rescinding the agreement with Swedish manufacturers of the Bofors guns. Ram Jethmalani who led the campaign against Rajiv on Bofors years later went on to plead in the Rajya Sabha to bury the hatchet because BJP’s patrons the Hinduja brothers were also named as beneficiaries in the Bofors case. Subramanian Swamy too dismissed the Bofors charge against Rajiv Gandhi in his book on Rajiv Gandhi assassination.
But by 2012 the duo was back with the BJP, now again baiting Sonia on Agusta-Westland helicopter deal, never mind that it never fructified. Bofors was not the first nor Agusta the last one to remain a mystery, about who paid whom and how much. The Denel gun deal, Barak missiles and the Coffingate scams were the gift of the previous NDA government where again the CBI continued groping in the dark for lack of competence or will to nail the end beneficiaries.Nor is Tyagi the first senior Defence officer charged with involvement in arms purchases. Admiral S P Nanda had made it his trade, though apparently post-retirement. Another Admiral Sushil Kumar too had faced a similar probe, though nothing came of that as well.
Yet the damage was done and the campaign successfully put Narendra Modi in the Prime Minister’s chair. After that the public memory is anyway too short.