The alternative opinion may bring adequate heft to the current bi-polar debate on the scam and, if pursued seriously, could also change the general political climate.
Even as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) launched a scathing attack on the Congress over its alleged involvement in the 2010 AgustaWestland VVIP chopper scam and vice-versa, a number of other political parties, who could together emerge as a political third front in near future, criticised the union government’s move as a tactical cover for its administrative failures. The Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Left parties have united in their criticism of the Congress, for its alleged involvement in the scam, and the BJP-led government, which they believe has used its criticism against the Congress to brush aside its own inability to hasten the investigative process. Both the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) have been pursuing the case for more than three years.
A few weeks ago, an Italian court overturned a lower court’s 2014 order acquitting the main accused in the case –AgustaWestland CEO Bruno Spagnolini and parent company Finmeccanica’s chairman Guiseppe Orsi – on charges of international corruption. In the blame-game that ensued in India, the BJP charged the Congress top brass, including Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, of being involved in the corrupt deal. On the defensive, the Congress said the UPA-II government had cancelled the deal, instituted an enquiry, recovered the money and put both companies on a blacklist, while the BJP had removed AgustaWestland and Finmeccanica from the blacklist in its pursuit of the ‘Make in India’ campaign.
While the traditional adversaries play out this debate, regional parties and the Left have blamed both the previous UPA and the NDA governments for failing to address the growing problem of crony capitalism, or what they call ‘a nexus between politicians, bureaucrats, and corporates.’
“All of us know that a substantial sum of illicit money exchanged hands. That is fine. But my question is what happened to the CBI enquiry? Today, the peculiar case is that one who has been accused is not shouting and one who is the executioner (of investigation) is shouting instead of executing. What was the BJP doing in the last two years? Why didn’t the government fasten the probe and arrest the people who were involved? The BJP is clearly trying to divert the issue because they have nothing to say about the probe. They only have a list of failures. First, it was the Ishrat Jahan case, and now it is this. Not just this scam, but nothing has moved in the 2G or the coal block allocation cases too. Forget about getting back the black money stashed abroad. We are in a situation where our white money is being exported out illegally. The government couldn’t do anything about Lalit Modi’s case,” said Ajay Alok, general secretary of the Janata Dal (United).
To a question on how his party would respond to the debate in parliament if the BJP rakes it up, Alok said, “The BJP will fall into their own trap. We would ask a simple question: You owe a responsibility to the nation, what have you done for the last two years? Instead of acting upon the scam, we hear the government is getting into a deal with the same Italian companies. Earlier there was a policy paralysis. Now is there an action paralysis.”
The RJD echoed similar sentiments. “We have seen time and again that whenever there is a major crisis on which this government has no answer, it takes out these cases as a kind of a limited time spectacle. The issue is if you want to resolve these cases, the agencies are with you, take it to the logical culmination. Instead of shouting and instead of making it a political spectacle, be serious, realise you are in the government. Don’t just use this as cover for your failures on multiple fronts,” said Manoj Jha of the RJD.
“This government has killed democracy several times, the most recent example being the imposition of President’s rule in Uttarakhand. The Uttarakhand high court decision (quashing the President’s rule), according to me, is one of the rarest judgements that has shaken the foundations of the regime. The only parallel is the historic 1975 Allahabad high court court judgement against Indira Gandhi. The Congress lost power because of a series of scams. It lost credibility. All of us know that. But the party which came on the promise of a corruption-free government has shown us the ugliest and murkiest features of neo-liberal economy and politics. The Lalit Modi and Vijay Mallya cases are only some examples,” he added.
Similarly, Communist Party of India (Marxist) central committee member Nilotpal Basu said, “We have seen both these parties charging against each other so many times but both the parties never seemed to be interested in conducting a proper independent enquiry. Credible enquiry should be there. These are very serious matters. These are not the kind of issues on which you play politics. Corruption, as we have seen in this era, is essentially systemic. It is no longer a question of moral degeneration of individuals. Essentially scams like the AgustaWestland deal are direct spin offs of the very paradigm of neo-liberalism. The emergence of a bureaucrat, politician, and corporate nexus in the last three decades is the fountainhead of corruption. It is not surprising, therefore, that a section of the armed forces also got sucked into the illegalities.
Rajendra Chaudhary of SP, too, felt that the debate playing between the Congress and the BJP over the chopper scam is hogwash, meant to sideline regional parties
and their viewpoints from national politics. “As far as the chopper scam is concerned, both the parties have been trying to polarise political opinion in the country. As if there are only two versions – either of the Congress or the BJP! The fact of the matter is that both the parties have a common economic agenda. Their style of functioning is also similar. Scams like this one are borne out of their similar approach towards governance.”
The VVIP chopper scam with the UK-based firm AugustaWestland has brought to the fore two distinct levels of corruption. The deal was carried out through different beneficiaries – all of whom had considerable influence in the UPA-II government, including former minister Santosh Bargodia and senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel. In a first, the armed forces, usually considered sacrosanct, played a central part as beneficiaries. The then Indian air force chief, S.P. Tyagi, has been accused of receiving kickbacks through his cousins who ran multiple shell companies. The usual nepotistic practices were played out in deciding the deal.
Additionally, scams such as this are direct outcomes of an open economy in which international companies bribe or lobby with the government to land lucrative deals, thereby rendering the ideal notion of competitive pricing and tenders redundant. What happened in AugustaWestland deal had also happened in the Walmart corporate lobbying case in 2012, or say, the murky defense deals during the NDA-I government exposed by Tehelka’s Operation Westend.
The lack of adequate measures to ensure transparent governance compounds the problem of such high-level structural corruption in India. Consequently, big business groups, in order to get a foothold in the Indian market, use the rules of the new economy in their favour while passing through the old channels of nepotism.
The alternative opinion advanced by the third front, therefore, may bring adequate heft to the current bi-polar debate on the scam and, if pursued seriously, also to the general political climate of the country.