Aabhas K Maldahiyar
The "470 crore worth AgustaWestland VVIP Chopper scandal is haunting the Congress, yet again. In the investigation, the only missing link was Christian Michel, the middleman in the deal. Finally, India got him extradited from Dubai in December 2018. He has been talking of ‘Mrs Gandhi’ in the CBI and ED investigation. So ideally, we should have been discussing the modus-operandi of the defence scandals during the Congress regimes but what we are discussing is Rafale. This is called the ‘ecosystem’.
The revelations through the National Advisory Council (NAC) files has already substantiated the fact that the Council was not just ‘advisory’ but actually meddling in the policy formulation and implementation. The book Accidental Prime Minister also indicated the same. So when the the movie Accidental Prime Minister is being released, we should be deliberating on how Sonia Gandhi as the Super-PM and her advisory council dictated terms to the Prime Minister and his cabinet. But we are not.
Time and again, it is being said that Congress is a mindset that revolves around power. This power is managed through the ecosystem created of various self-perpetuating actors. The Christian Michel investigation and the film based on a book give us an opportunity to decode some aspects of this entrenched ecosystem that persists irrespective of who is in power.
UPA-II was voted out in 2014 and two major reasons were the NaMo tide and the corruption tide through the command of Signora. The mine of corruption kept erupting one of other tainted element. But of all when we had just understood that it was not the end. Came in light the new protagonist of story called Christian Michel and we were left awestruck.
V.K. Krishna Menon (left) and Jawaharlal Nehru in London in 1949
The Deal ‘Congressism’
The Jeep Scandal in 1948 was first major corruption case in independent India. V.K. Krishna Menon, the then Indian high commissioner to Britain, ignored protocols and signed a Rs 80 lakh contract for the purchase of army jeeps with a foreign firmSridhar Prabhu
Tearful saga of partition and killing of several million that followed didn’t satiate Muslim League’s monstrous thirst. Hence, even before the elapse of the first week of formation of Pakistan (August 20, 1947), “Operation Gulmarg” was hatched by the makers of Pakistan. First, twenty Lashkars (militia) of one thousand tribesmen each were formed and then, along with the military regulars, a centralised attack was unleashed on Kashmir.
This first war on our nation necessitated urgent deployment of our forces along the Pakistan border.
Some of the troops were airlifted to Srinagar but a large chunk was to be carried on ground. Army was short of around 4603 jeeps. About 1000 were imported from the US and to procure the remaining, a high-power committee visited the UK but for no avail. Later, Mr VK.Krishna Menon, Bharat’s High Commissioner to UK and Nehru’s man-Friday was made responsible for this procurement.
Thanks to the skilful negotiations of Mr. Menon, for procurement of around 200 jeeps, a weighty sum of £ 1,72,000 was paid, almost upfront, with loose-knit inspection terms. Finally, in 1949, two weeks after the ceasefire, about 155 jeeps arrived in Chennai Port, that too in near unserviceable condition. Highly humiliated, as they remained, Defence forces refused to accept the consignment.
Internal pressure forced Nehru to constitute Ayyangar Inquiry Committee. The Committee thoroughly exposed Menon and chronicled in detailed his lapses and misdeeds at all levels. As though to reward all this, Menon was made in charge of two major defence contracts—25 Michell bombers and staghound armoured cars.
Both these procurement deals piloted by Krishna Menon were frustrated as the consignments never reached.
Nehru’s comradery with Menon far surpassed his love for the nation and never allowed him to publicise Ayyangar Inquiry Commission report. It was Benegal Shiva Rao shared a copy with GS Bhargava enabling the latter to author a book - Political Corruption in India — with Surendranath Dwivedi. And that’s why Shiva Rao inspired Nehru’s rage, till end.
after this shameful episode compromising our defence interests, Nehru became so much more passionate in defending and even elevating Krishna Menon that he initially rewarded him with the second highest civilian award - Padma Vibhushan (1954) and was later made Defence Minister (1957). 1962 China war drubbing with Nehru and Menon at the helm is too famous to be narrated in detail.
All throughout his tenure as Defence Minister, Krishna Menon passionately believed and espoused disbanding of armed forces for he perceived defence spending to be wasteful. What is even more interesting is that Nehru’s passion for Menon grew directly proportional to Menon’s contempt for the defence of Bharat.
Nehru-Menon comradery saga characterised by a criminal neglect for defence of nation admixed with equal potion of corruption and favouritism, is so deeply etched in the DNA of Congress.
With this in perspective, it does not come as a surprise to witness naming of Mrs Gandhi and her son by the main accused and middleman — Christian Michel backed by the recent expose’ by a private news channel Times Now of the contents of the letter addressed to Giuseppe Orsi, the Chief Executive Officer of Finmeccanica, dated 1st October 2009.
It is precisely in this backdrop that one needs to decipher the threads of AgustaWestland scam culminating with Christian Michel’s naming of “Italian lady and her son and next Prime Minister”. Beginning with the inglorious “Jeep Scandal” and up to this date, Congress has employed its best efforts to remain as opaque and as it can. Congress’s insistent effort to remain close-knit within the shackles of one family is squarely because of the historical deceits unleashed on the nation. If Congress gets even quasi democratised, it faces the danger of opening its can of worms.
If the control doesn’t get as familial as it can, Congress is bound to get exposed and then
That’s why likes of Menon (substitute “AP” in AgustaWestland deal), who have the potential of exposing Congress are consistently rewarded with rich dividends and never fall from grace despite serious allegations. What appears to be an illogical love for “One Family” is actually a defence mechanism built to safeguard the skeletons in the cupboards. To safeguard these interests, the caste, oppression bogey, gender discrimination and many more fault lines are scratched on the heart of Bharat.
Let me start the tale through the sequence of events with character appreciation. We must, go into the background of the Rs 3,600-crore VVIP chopper deal to understand AgustaWestland scam. It all begun with review and recommendation by the Indian Air Force in 1999 to buy new helicopters for VVIPs. Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister then. Back then in India Soviet-era Mi-8 helicopters were used by the VVIPs and the Mi-8 helicopters were understood as obsolete on the count of latest security requirements. Tenders were floated in 2002 to procure new helicopters. The most essential criteria mentioned in the tender were to have bidder to have potential to fly at 6KM altitude. Hence only Eurocopter qualified in the bid in 2002. After the order was placed the eligibility criteria was changed at the behest of the then National Security Advisor (NSA) Brajesh Mishra. With the new government was in operation in 2004, the game begun with full swing. A new eligibility criterion was drafted by the Defence Ministry. As per new eligibility criteria, flying altitude was brought down by 1.5 KM.
Now three vendors could qualify for the bid and the deal was finalised in favour of AgustaWestland in 2010. A purchase indenture for 12 AgustaWestland AW101 helicopters was signed for the Indian Air Force for Rs 3,600 crore. Of them, eight of the choppers were to be used by VVIPs including President, Vice-President and the Prime Minister of India. Three choppers were delivered to the Indian Air Force (IAF) by 2012. They were kept in at the Palam Airport for next four years. In the meantime, a corruption scandal emerged in Italy involving Finmeccanica (now Leornado). Finmeccanica is an Italian firm that owns AgustaWestland, a British company.
Projecting the bitter consequence, the then UPA Government scrapped the AgustaWestland deal in February 2013. The bank account of AgustaWestland was frozen in January 2014 and Rs 250 crore amount was recovered as bank guarantee.
As per the ED chargesheet filed against Michel in June 2016, he received about Rs 225 crore from AgustaWestland to get the VVIP chopper deal done Michel claimed in the letter that the project will be cleared in a CCS meeting planned for the third day of October 2013
Now let me give you some insight about the role of protagonist Christian Michel. As per the Election Directorate (ED) chargesheet filed against Michel in June 2016, he received about Rs 225 crore from AgustaWestland to get the VVIP chopper deal done. Christian Michel is one of the three middlemen who are being probed in the case. The other two are Guido Haschke and Carlo Gerosa.
Now the interesting revelation is the letter he wrote on August 28, 2009 to Giuseppe Orsi, the CEO of AgustaWestland. It reveals stunning pieces of confidential information accessed by him. The letter also talks of a “power struggle” between the then Finance and Defence Ministers. What else can be more worrying than this that the rift of cabinet is in access of a foreign middleman?
Michel claimed to know the schedule of a CCS (Cabinet Committee of Security) meeting two months prior. Michel claimed in the letter that the project will be cleared in a CCS meeting planned for the third day of October 2013. And within three working days of that meeting, Michel assured, you will be given a date to come and finalise. As per available information, Michel has so far not disputed the dispatches. He promised AgustaWestland in the letter that the deal will be sealed in July. He further suggested Orsi to not get “frustrated”, as Michel explained “what went wrong”.
Timeline of the Deal
August 1999 The Indian Air Force (IAF), which is responsible for carrying out VVIP communication duties, proposes replacement of Mi-8 helicopters due to operational constraints
September 2006 With consultation from Manmohan Singh's PMO tenders were issued to six vendors. The requirement of choppers was also revised upwards from 8 to 12.
January 2010 The Cabinet Committee on Security clears proposal to acquire 12 helicopters for the use of VVIPs after a long process that involved a change in some parameters, evaluations and negotiations
February 2010 Ministry of Defence (MoD) concludes a contract for the supply of 12 AW-101 VVIP helicopters with Britain's AgustaWestland
February 2012 Media reports about allegations of unethical dealings in helicopter procurement appear. MoD seeks a factual report from the Indian embassy in Rome
February 2013 Italian Police arrest Giuseppe Orsi, CEO of Finmeccanica, the parent company of AgustaWestland, as part of bribery investigations into the chopper deal
February 2013 MoD initiates action for cancellation of the contract and puts on hold payments to the company. Issues a formal show cause notice to AgustaWestland. Investigation handed over to Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI)
February 2013 CBI registers a preliminary enquiry against 11 people, including former IAF chief SP Tyagi and four companies
March 2013 CBI registers an FIR against Tyagi and 12 others for alleged criminal conspiracy and cheating in the chopper deal
November 2013 AgustaWestland officials meet MoD officials to present their case. The company nominates Justice BN Srikrishna for arbitration
January 2014 The Indian government terminates the agreement on the grounds of breach of the Pre-contract Integrity Pact and agreement by AgustaWestland
September 2014 ED arrests businessman Gautam Khaitan on allegations of kickbacks in the Rs 3,600-crore AgustaWestland chopper deal
October 2014 An Italian court acquits former chairman of AgustaWestlandOrsi and former AgustaWestland head Bruno Spagnolini. Sentenced to a 2-year jail term on the false accounting charge
April 7, 2016 Orsi sentenced to 4.5 years in jail for false accounting and corruption by an Italian court. Bruno Spagnolini was also handed a four-year jail term on the same charges. The court also decided to confiscate the belongings of the two men worth 7.5 million euros ($8.5 million)
February 2017 Authorities in UAE arrest Christian Michel. CBI makes a request for his extradition
September 1, 2017 CBI files charge sheet against Tyagi and 11 others
July 18, 2018 ED files charge sheet against 34 accused and companies
November 19, 2018 Court proceedings on the extradition request against Christian Michel conclude in UAE. Dubai court upholds the lower court's decision for the possibility of extraditing him
December 4, 2018: Christian Michel is brought back to India on a special plane.
Mentioning to one of the meetings (July 19-23, 2009) between the Hillary Clinton and the then PM, Michel wrote Hillary raised a point that “was not in the agenda”. “Why is India buying the 101 (make of the helicopter). The US has cancelled it because it was profligate. How can India do it,” he wrote claiming Hillary conveyed this to the PM. He added, “The PM for an unknown reason desperate to keep good US relations as his legacy and therefore promised to look into the matter”. Michel claimed “then, we can along and push through a CCS meeting on July 30 and the PM is stuck”. Writing that the PM could not have cleared the deal in the said CCS meeting as he was in “danger of losing his reputation” with the US. Claiming access to a Cabinet note, Michel wrote the “note that was put up for the cabinet was not as strong as it should have been”. He blamed it on the “the arrogance of the Joint Secretary and the then Defence Secretary”.
Mentioning to the purported internal discussions which took place on July 30, Michel wrote “We and the team (user, bureaucrat and key political elements) expected it to clear without a problem”, however, he adds much to their “nightmare”, the PM invited questions from all ministers asking them to raise them to the Defense Ministry which will be later routed back to the CCS. “This statement threw us to the wolves. Every minister, every lobby, group, Russian/American/French had questions. The finance minister saw his chance to flex muscles and take on the Defense Minister where there is a power struggle”, Michel wrote. Our project was on the edge of a cliff, he added after questions started pouring in. He added “we spent the whole of August regrouping, realigning and preparing our strategy for resubmission to the CCS. Our CCS note is huge. The new Defense Secretary has got brains… The Joint Secretary learnt his lesson. The National Security Advisor saw the PM at 4 pm yesterday”.
The letter further reads “we have met with finance with the Boss. We have apologized for not keeping him informed and we have pressurised the PM through his party elite”. Calling the Defense Minister “incompetent”, Michel claimed the Defense Minister is “100% behind us”. He added on August 24, an “excellent CCS note was presented to the Defense Minister which was later circulated to the Council of Ministers. The PM has demonstrated to Hillary that he did intervene, but rule of the government let it go through”.
Apart from the letter’s revelations, Michel also confined to ED about some 'Mrs Gandhi', 'the son of the Italian lady'. The case is turning out to be interesting while it exposes abundant characters that once steered the government of largest democracy. His diaries, seized by the Italian police and later handed over to the CBI, reveal that he might have paid six million euros to IAF officers, 8.4 million to bureaucrats in addition to 15-16 million to an unidentified political family. So point to ponder is the relation amid ‘unidentified political family’, ‘Mrs Gandhi’ and 'the son of the Italian lady'. The dots certainly lead us to the two strongest faces of Congress. As the diary of Michel claims of bureaucrats as well, then certainly it is but an ecosystem which was at work. Certainly Rafale Deal Controversy was planted very rightly to blemish the real scam. Michel was first arrested by the Dubai authorities on February 8, 2017 and this was the time when Congress started airing the controversy of Rafale. That period was indeed critical to buy to slow down process of getting Christian Michel. The SC judges came on dissent call in January 2018 and further ruckus was created. It again is a point to ponder that why the judges didn’t opt for internal discussions when they later themselves admitted that only internal deliberation shall resolve the crisis. They did the same before the elections of 2004 as they indulged people in the fake scam of Coffins while larger scam to be discussed was Bofors. If still we fail to understand the mucky ecosystem involving bureaucracy, judiciary, media and the grand old political family then only someone from heaven can save the country from being ruined.
(The writer is a researcher & columnist)