Riding the anti-graft wave is a clever strategy that helps the ruling party divert attention from most pressing economic issues, such as the crises in the rural agriculture sector and growing joblessness.
Hats off to the BJP’s political strategists! At a time when about 400 million people in the country are in the grips of severe back-to-back droughts and the Supreme Court has spent over 50 hours over the past few weeks hearing a petition on the impact of drought conditions on the livelihood of people, parliamentarians are engaged in a bitter duel over alleged defence kickbacks in the AgustaWestland deal.
One is totally awestruck by the BJP’s ability to have the cake and eat it too. As the opposition, the BJP rode the anti-corruption wave caused by the spectrum and coal allocation scandals under the UPA regime. As the ruling party, the BJP is trying to ride another anti-corruption wave against the main opposition, the Congress. This is a clever strategy because it helps the BJP divert attention from most pressing economic issues, such as the crises in the rural agriculture sector and growing joblessness.
The Italian court order in the AgustaWestland deal has given the BJP a handle to attack the top guns of the Congress party who find mention in the order as leaders of influence who may have shaped decisions to purchase the helicopter. So the BJP now has a political handle against the main opposition until the 2019 elections. In corruption cases, that is what matters. The political dividends take precedence over the actual conclusion of the case. Otherwise the NDA government has hardly shown any urgency in speeding up cases of corruption and bringing the accused to book. Rather, it prefers to let cases linger on in a Kafkaesque manner so that it can politically exploit them when required.
In a sense, the BJP has mastered the art of launching and calibrating cases of corruption, recovery of black money and the like, in a way that keeps political opponents on the tenterhooks. For instance, when the infamous HSBC list of illegal account holders in Geneva came to light through a whistleblower and India formally received the list from the French authorities, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s first statement was that the Congress would be greatly embarrassed if the names were disclosed. Jaitley also said he would disclose all the names – about 140 – against whom criminal proceedings were launched the moment they would be charge-sheeted. Nothing has been heard about these cases since then.
The Panama Papers clearly list, with documentary evidence, the illegal commissions/bribes paid to consultancy companies and agents for the sale of defence equipment to the Indian air force and navy. At least three payments to a consultancy firm with an Indian agent were made by the Italian defence manufacturer Elettronica SpA during the NDA regime from 2000 to 2004. Incidentally, Elettronica SpA has also had business partnership with Finmeccanica, the Italian defence and aerospace company whose former boss has received a jail sentence for corruption in the sale of the controversial AgustaWestland choppers to India. No FIR has been filed yet by the Modi government in the patently illegal commissions paid by Elettronica SpA as documented in the Panama Papers. The defence ministry is believed to have made some tentative enquiries from The Indian Express about the documents in their possession, but that is about all.
So the NDA has evolved its own way of calibrating corruption cases either during the investigation or at the trial stage. Does anyone know what is happening in the Supreme Court-monitored prosecution and trial of the spectrum scam that shook the UPA regime and helped Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political campaign before the general elections? The Enforcement Directorate (ED)/Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) charge-sheet had clearly said criminal money facilitated by corporate entities went out of the country and came back to be invested in a politician-owned media channel. The case is still to be concluded in the court. At one point, the Supreme Court-monitored trial was held regularly. But now the dates for the trial are far less frequent. In short, no urgency has been shown to conclude the cases.
The coal scam cases seem to be going the same way. A report in The Indian Express quotes an anonymous letter written by a CBI investigating officer alleging that the Supreme Court-monitored investigation is being compromised as some top agency officials are hand in glove with the corporates accused in the coal allocation scam. The letter was sent to CBI director Anil Sinha a few weeks ago. Sinha has acknowledged the receipt of the letter, but is he or the top leadership of the government doing anything about this grave matter? Separately, Sinha has lamented that the CBI will collapse under the burden of new cases. He probably wants more personnel and office infrastructure just as Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur wants massive vacancies at the high court level to be filled by the Centre, a “crying” need he had expressed in Modi’s presence. So the NDA technically has the power to calibrate the pace of investigations and court proceedings through the sheer supply and allocation of scarce manpower infrastructure. For instance, it can possibly ask for good CBI officers to be deployed in the AgustaWestland investigation rather than in the Vyapam probe in Madhya Pradesh. This would be entirely legitimate and politically beneficial too!
In the AgustaWestland bribery scam the government investigators have sent formal letters seeking the cooperation of over half a dozen other jurisdictions, including tax havens, since 2014. The charge against the second UPA government is that the CBI and the ED did not seriously pursue the illegal payments trail in the chopper scam, although the CBI had filed a case in 2013. Another charge is that the then defence minister, A.K. Antony, initiated the process of blacklisting Finmeccanica towards the fag end of the UPA tenure in May 2014 when general elections were about to conclude.
These are valid points. However, it is equally valid to ask why the NDA did not proceed with urgency against some of the accused known earlier to be involved in the helicopter import, such as former chief of the Indian Air Force S.P. Tyagi. The government has still not arrested him. How did Finmeccanica become part of the prestigious ‘Make in India’ project initiated by Modi when the government had already arrested an accused in the chopper scam in September 2014? Only now has the government chosen to defer the Agusta-Tata joint venture to manufacture defence equipment.
Recently, one of the middlemen named by the Italian high court, Dubai-based Christian Michel, offered to come to India and depose before the authorities. Why isn’t the government inviting him? Is it because Michel has also stated that there might be a deal between the Modi government and the Italian authorities to facilitate the release of the Italian marines being tried for murder in India in return for senior UPA leaders being alluded to in the Agusta chopper deal? These doubts will not go away in the currently charged political climate. But it must be said the BJP has done a fairly competent job of keeping the corruption issue alive in its bid to keep the opposition on the run.