Pushed to the corner on the AgustaWestland VVIP chopper scam, the Congress has made a strong retaliatory strike against the ruling BJP, particularly against its president Amit Shah, who a day ago had put some straight questions to Sonia Gandhi.
The Congress president, of course, would not respond to it but fielded Randeep Singh Surjewala, in-charge of party’s communication department to take on the BJP president.
Sample his statement: “Amit Shah and BJP leaders have become masters in pursuing politics of deceit and deliberate lies. No wonder, empty vessels make the loudest sound. BJP government and its leaders need to introspect, whether mudslinging and muckraking can ever replace the truth?”
His statement runs into a few pages and some annexure attached claim that it was actually the Modi government which was at fault in shielding the bribe givers and bribe takers. One can make one’s own judgment on the Congress leader’s words that the chopper scam and the subsequent revelation originating through the Milan Court of Appeal’s judgement papers is just a part of the “smear campaign and hatchet job of the BJP’s dirty tricks department defend the ‘Operation Cover-up’ of BJP government in helping AgustaWestland.”
In his enthusiasm to ring fence his leader Sonia Gandhi and some others, the Congress leader tends to forget to answer simple questions: When did the scam take place? Did the Congress-led UPA government, despite an admission made by then Defence Minister AK Antony that bribe was paid to people in the Indian establishment, bring the guilty to book? Also, who was the force behind the decision the on Rs 3,600-crore deal for 12 helicopters to be used by the VVIPs.
Two days ago, in one of his rare appearances on a television show, Ahmad Patel, the all powerful political secretary of Sonia Gandhi, told Times Now that he was there to defend himself, his leader (Sonia Gandhi) and his party. What this actually meant that blame Manmohan Singh government as much as you want but spare the Congress president. The BJP is not falling into that trap.
On Friday, the BJP mounted a concerted attack and fired at the Congress from all possible quarters. In the morning, the irrepressible Subramanian Swamy filed a notice of breach of privilege against Congress’s Ghulam Nabi Azad “for willfully telling a lie” in Rajya Sabha that AgustaWestland was blacklisted by the UPA regime, as also filing another notice challenging expunging of his words by the Deputy Chairman, which the BJP leader felt was “arbitrary, unreasonable and against Rajya Sabha Rules”. Outside, he can use the words, Sonia Gandhi and Italian Constitution, but not inside, not in Rajya Sabha.
Few hours later, Amit Shah issued a statement from Ahmedabad asking some biting questions to Sonia on Agusta scam. By night two more developments happened – first, Modi government issued an around 1500-word statement, a point-by-point rebuttal to the Congress’s retaliatory strike. Second, the CBI and ED issued summons to the disgraced former Air Force chief SP Tyagi and another senior officer to appear before it for inquiry.
Interestingly, the official government statement on Agusta scam issued by the Information and Broadcasting ministry referred to charges made from quarters that Tyagi was part of Vivekanand foundation established and headed by Ajit Doval in his independent capacity. It didn’t matter that the Foundation had through a tweet denied to this charge on 27 April: “Ever since 2013, Air Chief Marshal S P Tyagi is not associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation @vifindia in any capacity.” The Congress and its sympathisers had continued making this charge to suggest that the tainted ex-air chief was close to the NDA regime not to the UPA.
“A few have even sought to link one of the accused with Shri Ajit Doval, present NSA, as also Shri Nripendra Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. This is a totally baseless assertion, devoid of reason and logic, and indicative of malicious intent. In reality, there is no such connection,” the government statement said.
The statement does not name the Congress because an official statement of Government of India can’t respond to a political party’s counter charges per se. But what’s interesting that it refers to the Congress as a “small section of Indian polity”. The Congress which till recently ruled at the centre and in most Indian states surely would not take it kindly but has surprisingly not responded to it. It is perhaps waiting for its turn in Rajya Sabha when it opens on Monday to prove that it is still the biggest party.
“It is indeed tragic that a small section of the Indian polity has attempted, unsuccessfully, to divert and diffuse the public discourse on this matter. They question the speed of the government processes, especially the investigation. But, they do not ask how the corrupt influenced the process of acquisition in the first place and bled the nation. They do not admit corruption; they instead boldly proclaim, catch us if you can,” the statement said.
“In the matter pertaining to acquisition of AgustaWestland helicopters, the undisputed central issue that stands out is corruption, especially bribery. Any other line of assumption, approach and effort, as is being attempted in some quarters, is misleading, tries to hide the wrong-doers and is driven by instincts of self preservation,” it added.
Amit Shah has levelled some serious allegations on changing several clauses of the original tender to favour AgustaWestland and signing a deal with it even as it was not original manufacturer of the chopper. Chapter two, para two of the tender had clearly said that only original equipment manufacturers could participate on the bid, how come then AgustaWestland, which was not its manufacturer, was allowed to bid and even cleared for technical bid. His contention would mean that the deal signed was fraudulent.
To the charge that Modi government did nothing to pursue this case since it came to power two years ago, the ministry goes at length at action taken, beginning 3 July 2014 when it put on hold all procurement/acquisitions from AgustaWestland, Finmeccanica and its other subsidiaries.
To another charge made by the Congress and some others that Modi government permitted AugustaWestland to bid for 100 Naval Utility Helicopters in April, 2015, the facts suggest otherwise — a techno-commercial Request for Proposal (RFP) for Naval Utility Helicopters was issued to eight vendors on 4 August 2012. In response to the RFP, M/S Eurocopters, France and M/S Agusta Westland SPA, Italy submitted their techno-commercial proposals on 4 March 2013. RFP of the procurement case was retracted by the government on 13 October 2014. Remember, by early 2013 UPA had claimed to have blacklisted AgustaWestland.
In October 2014, Indian Navy had hosted on the website a Request for Information for more than 100 Naval Utility Helicopter in October 2014. “No Request for Proposal has been issued, therefore the question of permitting AgustaWestland to bid for the Naval Utility Helicopter in April 2015 does not arise. In their drive to divert the public attention from their own corruption, these charges were being made,” the ministry said. It however, admitted that “the government is exploring whether their manufacturing can be pursued under Make in India. By now the Modi government would have realized that the political cost of any such consideration would be too big for it.
Whatever the CBI had been doing for the last two years in this case have not yet led to any conclusion, or finding of any substantive leads. The Milan High Court order in Italy has given a chance to push CBI and ED harder to find the money trail and unearth other relevant documents.
Will Modi government and CBI succeed? Well no one knows. Will it remain inconclusive like Bofors? The broad pattern of AgustaWestland and Bofors are the same but what makes the two cases different is the fact that for some reasons Vajpayee government didn’t have the political will to actively pursue Bofors investigations and court proceedings, the Modi government may not be found lacking on that score. Modi and Amit Shah would not like to let go an opportunity where they could keep on targeting Sonia Gandhi for long, with some valid reasons.