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Taint on armed forces as parties gear up for polls

The government was never in a hurry to get Christian Michel, the middleman in the AgustaWestland scam, back to India, despite the UAE court clearing his extradition.

Harsha Kakar |

I had written a column for this newspaper at the end of August, wherein I had stated that the Congress chose to raise the Rafale deal to try and offset the BJP from raising the Bofors and AgustaWestland cases, which had dominated almost every previous election and hurt its vote banks. I had also mentioned in the same column that prior to elections, the investigation in the AgustaWestland helicopter scam would gather steam and seriously impact the Congress. The same is working out as predicted.

The government was never in a hurry to get Christian Michel, the middleman in the AgustaWestland scam, back to India, despite the UAE court clearing his extradition. There was never any pressure applied on UAE for a speedy deportation. It had ensured that once the court orders had been issued, Michel would not leave the country. His return had to be correctly timed so that as his interrogation progressed, the Congress would be pushed on the backfoot, screaming political vendetta and ignoring Rafale.

The scam being investigated is that Michel along with Guido Hashke had influenced Indian officials to select the Agusta helicopters. The money involved is 44 million euros (valued at Rs 330 crore today). In every investigation carried out in the deal, in both India and Italy, Christian emerged as a key player. Interpol issued a red corner notice against him at India’s request in December 2015.

Investigation into the case has been ongoing but only gathers steam prior to elections and vanishes into cold storage immediately thereafter. The only individual who has been questioned till date is Air Marshal Tyagi, the retired air force chief. He is accused of accepting bribes for changing the ceiling of the helicopter, thus opening doors for AgustaWestland to enter the fray. As elections end, so does the investigation. Tyagi has even been arrested and then released on bail.

The air force had initially put forth its requirement for replacement of the existing MI 8 VIP helicopters in 1999. The deal for the AgustaWestland was inked in 2010 and the scam came to light in 2013 and was cancelled in January 14. It took eleven years from the initial proposal to finalising the deal. Air Marshal Tyagi was the Chief of Air Staff from 1 January 2005 to 31 March 2007, hence there would be other players too who are being ignored.

Further, since the contract was for VVIP helicopters, there was the involvement of multiple agencies and ministries. These included defence, finance, home and the PMO, represented by the NSA. None from any ministry has yet to be questioned. The only issue raised till date are the entries in the diary of Hashke which contained initials of those who were paid. These appear to belong to members of the Congress and different government appointees. It is the initials of Congress members which the BJP has exploited.

The Congress was desperate to be the first off the starting blocks and accuse the BJP of misdeeds, aware the BJP would raise Bofors and AgustaWestland. The only case which it managed to get its hands on was Rafale and it jumped in. It is still not aware whether Rafale is a scam or not but continues to exploit it. It formed multiple committees seeking to raise Rafale across the country; however it lacked facts and details. It even approached the Supreme Court to force a decision. Nothing emerged. Ultimately it would seek a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe, which the government would turn down.

Little did the Congress realize that it had raised the Rafale bogey months before elections and it would be difficult for it to sustain the pressure. The same is proving to be correct. Rafale is slowly dying a natural death. Even the Congress has slowed down its attacks on Rafale. It may seek to reignite the case during the winter session by blocking the working of the parliament, insisting on its demands. Much will now change.

The Supreme Court has held back its verdict on the Rafale case and Christian Michel has arrived to open his can of worms. News agencies have already begun shifting focus from Rafale to AgustaWestland. Michel is now in a safe house and his questioning would commence. This would proceed slowly and there would be selective leaks to the press of those who received bribes. Each leak would aim to hit some member of the Congress, further impacting its standing.

The one damage which has remained constant is that all scams have been on defence procurements. This conveys to the common Indian that everyone involved with defence procurement is tainted and that it involves those in uniform, which in a majority of cases is false. Further, it impacts and restricts processing cases for future procurements. The fear of being accused and reputation marred compels those involved in the process to slow down their actions, delay procurement as far as possible, ignoring the emergent needs of the forces, only to protect themselves. This was the approach of AK Antony who feared only for himself.

For the BJP, the deportation of Michel would be a feather in its cap. It would seek to enhance political mileage and project a clean image claiming that it would bring back to India all those who have cheated the country. Indications of a positive decision on Vijay Mallya also appear to be on the horizon. Mallya has already begun to offer settlements with banks.

As elections draw close and selective leaks of the questioning of Michel start doing the rounds, it would force the Congress to seek new ammunition against the BJP. Whether it actually gets material or fabricates it, time would tell. However, the reputation of the nation as one where every defence deal is tainted would only grow in the international domain. The battle for May 2019 would only get murkier and more dirty.

The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.