An independent inquiry may solve all possible angles of corruption in the VVIP chopper scam but will the BJP-led government at the Centre let it happen?
The spectre of the AgustaWestland VVIP chopper scam has come back to hound the Bharatiya Janata Party. In what has been panning out as a wrestling match between the BJP and the Congress, the emergence of documents that indict the BJP-led Chhattisgarh government for a dubious deal with the Italian helicopter company brings a new political twist. Released by the Swaraj Abhiyan – the political collective led by former Aam Aadmi Party member Yogendra Yadav and eminent advocate Prashant Bhushan – the documents show how the Raman Singh-led state government in 2007 issued a global tender to purchase a specific Agusta 109 Power E helicopter. In response, only three companies – all related to AgustaWestland – bid for the tender, making the purchase look like a case of favouritism.
Given the statements of the various middlemen and an Italian court’s recent ruling, the BJP had been going after the Congress with all guns blazing for its cronyism in the VVIP helicopter deal. Despite the persistent demands from other opposition parties, such as the Left Front, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Janata Dal (United), to hasten the probe, the BJP used the corruption case against the Congress to further its political agenda instead of doing anything substantial to bring the culprits to task.
Having enjoyed an upper hand in the debate until now, the Chhattisgarh documents may push the BJP on the back foot. With the Congress and other opposition parties planning to take on the issue of corruption within BJP ranks aggressively in a nationwide campaign, the ruling party will have to bring Singh to the forefront for a detailed response. This is the first time a senior leader of the party has been accused of involvement in a corruption case since the party came to power at the Centre two years ago.
The Chhattisgarh scam
The Swaraj Abhiyan gave a detailed account of how Singh bought one helicopter at an escalated price, three years before the VVIP scam came to light.
In December 2006, Chhattisgarh’s department of civil aviation proposed buying a new helicopter. Within days, the government’s representative held a meeting with OSS Pvt Ltd, an air management subsidiary of AgustaWestland, in which OSS offered one helicopter for $6.31 million. On further enquiry, Agusta suggested that the government buy a pre-sold helicopter from its Hong Kong-based distributor Sharp Ocean if it had an urgent requirement or wait at least two years to buy directly from the company. The Swaraj Abhiyan pointed out that Sharp Ocean is registered in the British Virgin Island, known to be a tax haven.
The $6.31 million price included a commission of $200,000 payable to Sharp Ocean for arranging a pre-sold helicopter. Following a few more rounds of talks, the state government issued a global tender for the purchase of the Agusta 109 Power E helicopter. It is crucial to note the tender was to buy a model made by only Augusta, despite several other manufacturers making choppers with similar specifications.
Three companies bid for the tender – AgustaWestland, OSS and Sharp Ocean. Since Sharp Ocean had the lowest bid (26.11 crore rupees), the government decided to buy the chopper from this firm. Sharp Ocean bought a chopper from one Pune-based Serum Institute owned by Cyrus Poonawalla and sold it to the state government.
“In sum therefore, a helicopter comes to be purchased by the Govt. of Chattisgarh from a shady dealer registered in the British Virgin Islands by paying it a commission of USD 1.57 million (roughly 30% of the helicopter cost), without any effort to inquire about other helicopters which may be more suitable or cheaper,” says the Swaraj Abhiyan press note.
According to Bhushan, “After six months of this deal, Raman Singh’s son Abhishek Singh opened an account in the British Virgin Islands through a company called Quest Heights Ltd, raising more suspicions. The address of the company mentioned in the bank account is the same as the one declared by Raman Singh in his election affidavit”.
“While the quantum of the Chhattisgarh government’s deal is much lesser than that of the UPA’s deal with AgustaWestland, it points to similar illegalities. It is a question of propriety. The BJP has to come clean on this,” he added.
Bhushan also said the BJP has made no attempts to probe the state government’s deal with Agusta despite a 2011 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General making similar allegations. “One standard for a UPA scam and another for BJP CMs scam,” the Swaraj Abhiyan note proclaimed.
Renewed opposition attack
The documents have given the opposition an opportunity to ramp up their attack against the BJP.
“We have been saying for a long time now that the idea of the government was always to use the scam as a façade to divert attention from pressing issues. Leave aside drought, unemployment or the rupee fall, the BJP has been killing democracy slowly. It does not want to confront these issues in Parliament. The Agusta case gave it a good platform to divert attention from these issues. The question, however, is why didn’t it take up the probe more seriously? I think the answer lies in the new (Swaraj Abhiyan) documents. One thing is very clear – their interest is not in investigating but only in making noise. The BJP is now rattled. AgustaWestland will bring out so many skeletons out of the cupboard. And one party that may be the most uncomfortable could be the BJP,” said the RJD’s Manoj Jha.
The Left Front believes the UPA and the BJP are trapped in the web of neo-liberal policies that are bound to generate such scams. “We have been demanding a Supreme Court-monitored probe in the case. The scam has backfired against the BJP now. Corruption in India today is inevitable because of neo-liberal policies and domination of finance capital. Both the Congress and the BJP aided the emergence of the bureaucrat-politician-corporate nexus so prevalent in this era. The BJP must stop playing [footsie] over corruption and focus on investigation now, including the Chhattisgarh government’s deal,” said Nilotpal Basu, central committee member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Another prominent leader, who did not want to be named, told The Wire that the BJP is perhaps not interested in investigating the scam as much as it is in trying to taint the Gandhi family for immediate political gains. “We now know that the the prime minister has been accused of offering freedom to the Italian marines accused of killing Indian fishermen in exchange of information linking Sonia Gandhi and her family in the Agusta case. What should one make out of this?” he said, referring to a report in The Telegraph that said that Christian Michel, the British arms agent involved in the helicopter scam, had accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of assisting the Italian marines in exchange of any evidence against Gandhi.
In the mudslinging that occurred over the last few days, the question of investigation and accountability went for a toss, and most political observers blame the BJP-led government for such a situation. The new documents have put both the BJP and the Congress in the dock on the issue of corruption. Amidst the high-pitched debate, only an independent inquiry can take the probe further. But will the Modi government let it happen?