Too conspicuous to be missed, the Congress Party basks in the glory of sitting pretty far from Italy where Court has found the misdeeds of the party by catching those who gave bribes to clinch the deal for AugustaWestland helicopters. And, thus, the task back home before the Government of the day is to catch the bribe takers, writes Sudesh Verma
AugustaWestland deal is a classic case where the bribe giver has been convicted in an Italian Court but the alleged bribe takers from India are sleeping happily and challenging the dispensation to act and act fast. The media, as if enamoured by the Congress propaganda, is also asking why the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition Government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not act in two years, as if slow action on the part of prosecuting agency could be construed as culpability in the guilt.
Whatever arguments may be given to deflect attention, the core issue would remain to be ‘who are the bribe takers’. Whether Sonia Gandhi, Dr Manmohan Singh, Ahmad Patel, Oscar Fernandes and others, whose names figure in the Guido Hashke note before Italian Court, are innocent? When SP Tyagi and his clan, also named in the note have been found to be guilty of taking bribe, can others be said to be innocent? Those who say the link is not direct should ask whether a UK vendor of the helicopters would be interested in knowing who are the main forces behind the need for helicopters or who would use these helicopters? Who took the bribe? Or, who clinched the deal for AugustaWestland in anticipation of bribe. Most money mentioned in Hashke note are the ones meant for future payment while a part of the bribe payment that has been made has also been established through money trail.
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s statement in the Rajya Sabha saying “it appears that an invincible hand was guiding the action or inaction of CBI and ED” should be taken with the seriousness it deserves. He further clarified his assertion through facts: “As far as the investigation by the CBI and ED is concerned, it is strange that the CBI which registered an FIR in the matter on 12th March, 2013, based on the reference made by the Ministry of Defence on 12th February, 2013, did not bother to forward a copy of the FIR to Enforcement Directorate for nine months… Even more strangely, the Enforcement Directorate did not act on the FIR until July 2014.
Things changed after the Modi Government came to power in May 2014. On 3 July 2014, the Government blacklisted AugustaWestland for any future defence deal. Again it is not significant whether AugustaWestland entered into a private dealing with an Indian company, a decision taken by the previous UPA (United Progressive Alliance) Government. It is important who were paid bribes and why were middlemen tolerated by the leadership then. The slow pace of investigation, which is a norm rather than an exception, cannot blur facts and shift the onus of truth from “bribe takers” to those who want to know the truth.
Circumstantial evidence comes in handy when it is difficult to establish the truth without proper and foolproof investigation. Most circumstantial evidence points out to the culpability of the Congress leadership, if we reasonably assume that nothing moves in such high-profile defence deals without the nod from political leadership. It is true that the mandatory requirement of flying at the altitude of 6000 metres was brought down during the previous NDA Government in 2003. The requirement of 6000 metres produced a single vendor situation leading to cancellation of the contract. The height was, therefore, reduced to 4,500 metres so that more players could participate in the bidding and the country could get the best possible deal. Saying this was done to favour someone or under influence of someone is hearsay and untruth.
The NDA regime had also stipulated that the height of such helicopters (cabin height for easy access by VVIPs) should be 1.8 metres. But this was made a desirable condition so that none could be disqualified for not having this. The UPA Government smartly changed this into mandatory, thereby, producing the same single vendor situation, since only AugustaWestland helicopters AW 101 had this cabin height.
People say that defence purchases should be made more transparent and accountable. But already a system exists that can guarantee a fair deal. There is something called the Defence Procurement Procedures (DPP) established with a view to ensure that no manipulation takes place. But what can you do if this DPP is violated with impunity. This is what happened in Augusta deal. There were many instances when this was violated. Why should responsibility for such violations not be fixed and punishment meted out to violators?
Even when AugustaWestland was awarded the contract, a few more requirements were added such as inclusion of Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS-II) and Enhanced Group Proximity Warning system (EGPWS) for all the 12 helicopters. In addition the SPG recommended inclusion of Medical Evacuation System (Medevac) for eight helicopters. These specifications were added when the Contract Negotiation Committee held discussions with the company between September 2008 to January 2009. The question that needs to be asked is why were specifications added in complete violation of the DPP? Why were these not foreseen prior to issuance of the RFP or request for proposal in September 2006? What happened in the two years that new specifications were added? This allowed Augusta Westland to quote any price that it wanted for the add-on systems. This might explain why the cost stipulated by Air Headquarters to Rs 793 crore in January 2006 escalated to Rs 3966 crore. Was this done deliberately to enable AugustaWestland to jack up the price in lieu of bribe?
It is job of the contract negotiation committee (CNC) to fix a benchmark price. For this the committee uses various sources including the bidder companies to fix the benchmark pricing. One is surprised to know that the benchmark price for buying 12 helicopters within three years of the floating of RFP was put at Rs 4877.5 crore, which was six times more than the original cost. Augusta got the deal without negotiation since it offered to supply the helicopters at Rs 3966 crore. The question that needs to be asked is how was benchmarking done and how could it be so widely off the original price stipulated by Air Headquarters?
Another more significant question in the deal was raised by Dr Subramaniam Swamy, BJP’s Rajya Sabha member. He questioned the need to increase the number of helicopters for VVIPs from 8 to 12 since the average utilisation time for Mi8 helicopters that were being phased out for AugustaWestland helicopters were only about 29 percent. The CAG has raised question on this and called it unjustified. Was it operational need or the greed of bribe takers that led to increase the number of helicopters?
The issue of not holding field testing of these helicopters in India is another big loophole in the deal. It was clearly mentioned in the RFP that the field testing would be done in India since equipments tested in European environment must pass the rigours of the Indian climatic conditions. To compound the sin, not original helicopters but its prototype was used in field testing.
Also the issue is why was action not taken in 2012? The reports about corruption in the deal had become known to one and all by the beginning of 2012. Why did it wait till May 2014 to cancel the deal? Union Defence Minister Manohar Parikker has pointed out that three helicopters were taken in December 2012. These helicopters also made sorties of more than 500 hours. The Government had the option to keep the contract on hold but it allowed advance payment of 45 percent.
The Congress has come up mainly with two arguments- allowing AugustaWestland entering into partnership with Indian firm in make in India and delay in taking action by the NDA Government after it came to power in May 2014. Mr Parikker rightly clarified in Lok Sabha: “All defence products from China are banned. Does that stop me from buying their smartphones? No. So if a company is making civilian helicopters, then as Defence Minister I cannot stop it from selling to India or participating in Make in India. Ban on a company for defence deal applies for defence deals only. This has been the precedent available till now. Also, the Congress should know that the approval for the Joint Venture came in September 2011 when the UPA was in power.
Rather than attacking the NDA for delay in action, the Congress should explain its own acts of omission and commission. As pointed by Mr Parikker: Was there an invisible hand trying to delay proper investigation? He pointed out that the CBI had registered a case on 12 March 2013 but for nine months it did not bother to forward a copy of the FIR to the ED for action. The ED also did not act on the FIR till July 2014. Needless to recall that AugustaWestland was blacklisted by the NDA Government in July 2014.
Manipulation of the system by making cabinet height of 1.8 metres, violating the DPP without batting an eyelid, preventing proper probe -- all prove that the UPA leadership had a big role to play in the chopper scam. The Italy Court’s prosecution of bribe givers has happened also on the basis of the note that had names of Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary. The fact that Sonia Gandhi has also been named puts the Congress under cloud. No amount of howling at the NDA would cleanse its sin. As for the NDA, speedy investigation and prosecution of the guilty would help establish credibility. Identifying bribe givers is the biggest challenge that the Government faces. -- The writer is BJP spokesman. He has earlier worked for The Statesman and NewsX Television News Channel. He has also authored a biography of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Views expressed here are his personal.