Given the glee with which Subramanian Swamy, the maverick politician who was recently nominated to the Rajya Sabha, has taken on the Gandhi family in the AgustaWestland chopper scam, the BJP should be happy that it is no longer the beleaguered party in the Upper House. One determined individual can change the perception game.

However, what makes for good theatre does not necessarily add up to a great strategy even for the BJP. In fact, if it is not careful in how it builds its case, AgustaWestland has all the makings of another Bofors – lot of sound and fury, and ultimately a trail that goes cold.

File image of Sonia Gandhi. PTI

File image of Sonia Gandhi. PTI

It is good that the follies of the Gandhi dynasty are being put through the microscope, but having a go at Sonia Gandhi and Rahul this early in the investigative process is politically counter-productive. The Italian court judgment that named Sonia in the course of a judgment upholding the convictions of executives of the Finmeccanica group for bribery may have embarrassed her, but nothing more. The reality is that there are layers of middlemen between the bribe-givers and the ultimate beneficiaries – or multiple beneficiaries – of the payoffs. The line linking the two is faintly dotted, and it needs a lot of follow-up forensic investigation and chasing of the money trail before the dots can be connected with bold ink.

As things stand now, the only certainties in the AgustaWestland affair are the following: One, the UPA changed specifications to favour AgustaWestland, but this can be justified on some technical ground or the other; it is certain that bribes (possibly amounting to around Rs 400 crore) were paid, and three people – Guido Ralph Haschke, Carlos Gerosa, and Christian Michel – were the key channels handling the flows. Former air chief SP Tyagi’s family was a key recipient of some of the money.

The political references in the Milan court judgment, which form the basis on which the BJP would like to target Sonia, emerge from a note allegedly written by Christian Michel where he advises people pushing the Agusta deal to focus their efforts on people close to Sonia, including Manmohan Singh and her close advisors. The note was written by Michel to Peter Hullet, the India head of AgustaWestland, and it talks of Sonia being the “driving force” behind the deal to buy 12 VIP helicopters.

In the note, Michel reportedly advises Hullet to ‘target’ key people to clinch the deal. This might have included Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandhi’s key political advisor. The actual names mentioned include Pranab Mukherjee, Veerappa Moily, (then National Security Advisor) MK Narayanan and a defence ministry official Vinay Kumar. Apparently, the judgment also notes that Haschke identified all the Congress leaders by their photos. Reference of sums paid to AP appear in one note by Michel. The assumption is that AP is Ahmed Patel.

The only clearly proven fact, even according to the Italian court verdict, may be the money paid to Tyagi’s family. Deducing and finding out the other recipients, specifically if they lead to Ahmed Patel and Sonia, involves following this and other money trails left by the payments made by Haschke, Gerosa and Michel.

However, even this may not be easy, as money tends to flow through layers of front companies based abroad, and linking the initial payment to one company or individual to its ultimate beneficiary may take years, given the poor abilities of our investigators to force other countries to part with their financial secrets.

This is why targeting Sonia and Rahul prematurely is pointless at this stage.

Logically, the only way to proceed is from the bottom up, starting with the Tyagis and defence ministry officials directly involved in the deal, piling the pressure on them and then forcing them to cooperate and name more names, digging out the financial details from accounts abroad, following the money trail to the logical end, and then checking to see if it implicates a Sonia or even an Ahmed Patel.

It is a sobering thought that the money trail in the 2G scandal has repeatedly gone cold, despite reaching some accounts in Mauritius or Switzerland. It is unlikely that the AgustaWestland bribes will be that easily traceable beyond Tyagi and Co.

The only way to do the job is to target the direct recipients, force them to turn approvers in the hope of getting them to name the big names, and then going after the powerful people who may be the ultimate beneficiaries of these big bribes. It will be a long haul even if done right.

For once, let us get this right. It is worth spending serious time and effort to nail the big people behind scams instead of blowing it all up for a few days’ worth of headlines. By prematurely targeting the potential end-recipient one not only gives the game away, but also faces the mortifying prospect of having some court reject the cases for lack of sufficient evidence.

This will give the Gandhis a propaganda coup that is undeserved — exactly what happened with Bofors, where the needle of suspicion pointed even more strongly in the direction of the Gandhis through their friend Ottavio Quattrochi.

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Sound, fury and a cold trail: Why AgustaWestland may go the Bofors way