Politics

As SC Pulls Up Centre on Chhattisgarh Chopper Scam Probe, the Story So Far

The BJP government in Chhattisgarh, led by chief minister Raman Singh, allegedly purchased an AgustaWestland helicopter at an escalated price.

Raman Singh. Credit: PTI

Raman Singh. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: In what may prove to be a boomerang moment for the BJP in the future, the Supreme Court has asked the standing council for the government of India to respond on what it has been doing to investigate the Chhattisgarh chopper scam. Hearing a petition that accuses the BJP-led Chhattisgarh government for illegally purchasing a VVIP helicopter, the two-judge bench comprising Justices Dipak Mishra and C. Nagappan on Friday asked the Union government to file its reply on the matter by the first week of November.

The petition by Swaraj Abhiyan, a political collective led by former Aam Aadmi Party member Yogendra Yadav and eminent advocate Prashant Bhushan, and opposition leader in the state T.S. Singhdeo has alleged that chief minister Raman Singh misused his office to favour the Italian helicopter-manufacturing company, AgustaWestland, while purchasing a VVIP helicopter worth $6.31 million.

Swaraj Abhiyan blew the lid off the alleged scam a few months before, when it said that the Chhattisgarh government bought the helicopter from a “shady dealer” by paying it a commission of $1.57 million, which was roughly 30% of the helicopter’s cost.

Around the same time as when the BJP was at the forefront of attacking the Congress-led government for its alleged involvement in the 2010 VVIP chopper corruption scam, the Swaraj Abhiyan had pointed out a starkly similar deal that went through in Chhattisgarh in 2006. Based on the information accessed by one Raipur-based RTI activist, Ajit Degwekar, Swaraj Abhiyan said that three years before the central VVIP chopper scam came to the limelight, Raman Singh had ignored official norms to favour a broker company, Sharp Ocean, in the state government’s purchase.

The Swaraj Abhiyan alleges that following the Chhattisgarh department of civil aviation’s proposal to buy a new helicopter in 2006, the government representatives met a company called OSS Pvt Ltd, an air management subsidiary of AgustaWestland. OSS offered one helicopter for $6.31 million, but referred the government to a broker company, Sharp Ocean, based out of Hong Kong. The Chhattisgarh government claims that OSS told representatives that the company could supply the helicopter only in two years and it could buy a pre-sold one from Sharp Ocean if it needed the chopper urgently.

After a few more rounds of talks, the state government issued a global tender for the purchase of the Agusta 109 Power E helicopter. This had upset many observers, since it is hardly government practice to float a tender which mentions the model and manufacturer’s name so specifically despite several other manufacturers making choppers with similar specifications.

Naturally, the bidders were three companies – AgustaWestland, OSS (its subsidiary), and Sharp Ocean (its broker). Sharp Ocean landed the deal as it had quoted the lowest price (Rs 26.11 crore). So, the government decided to buy a pre-sold helicopter from Sharp Ocean by paying an additional 30% (approximately) as brokerage.

Speaking to The Wire, Bhushan, who is also standing for the petitioners in court, pointed out that nearly six months after the deal was finalised, Raman Singh’s son, Abhishek, opened an account in the British Virgin Islands through a company called Quest Height Ltd.

“This raised more suspicions. The address of the company is the same as the one declared by the chief minister in his election affidavit,” he said. The Panama Papers leak had earlier revealed the presence of the account by the name of one ‘Abhishak Singh’ in the Caribbean tax haven. Further probe brought out the fact that the the account was linked to Raman Singh’s address in Kawardha, Chhattisgarh.

The BJP, including Raman Singh, has denied all these charges on the grounds that no money trail can be found in the deal. It is, therefore, expected that the Union government in its response to the court would stick to its stand.

“Though the SC hasn’t issued a formal notice, it has clearly said that it wants the government’s response on the matter. Once that comes, we will be able to take the case forward,” Bhushan told The Wire.

The BJP led the attack against the Congress a few months ago for its alleged corrupt role in the multi-million chopper deal with AgustaWestland. As evidence on the Congress and officials under the UPA government receiving kickbacks from the Italian company surfaced, the BJP took on the grand old party with all guns blazing.

However, it was forced to cow down after similar charges against one of its senior leaders came up. As more details of the deal may come to light in future, the opposition could be in a position to pull up the state government on the question of propriety and the BJP for its double standards.