THE past seems to be catching up fast with President Pranab Mukherjee. This time his name figures in the case relating to the purchase of Augusta Westland helicopters for comfortable travelling by the then Congress government, of which he was the Finance Minister at that time. His role has been revealed at an Italian court in Milan, not by the CBI which has been inquiring into the matter for the last three years. Apparently, the CBI, an agency which is a central government department, cannot be independent. Yet, it is expected to reveal truth despite its handicaps.
Had the agency been reporting to parliament directly, the helicopter deal would have been a part of the public domain. That no government wants to give the agency freedom is evident from the fact that the rulers do not want even to loosen their control over it. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Indian people come to know about bribes and corruption only when a foreign agency reports about them. The helicopter deal is just one example. Many scandals have come to light in past only when some foreign agency tumbles upon them. This will happen when an enterprising court like one at Milan does it.
Why did the CBI or some other agency not disclose a letter written by James Christian Michel to Peter Hulet, then head of India sales of Augusta Westland? In his letter, he has said: “Since Signora Gandhi is the driving force behind the VIP, she will no longer fly with MI-8…Signora Gandhi and her closest advisers are the aim of the (British) High Commissioner… Manmohan Singh is PM, Ahmed Patel…Pranab Mukherjee was then finance minister…he is the current president of India. Oscar Fernandes…is a local politician…”
It is difficult to believe that the CBI was not in the know of all these. The agency has been conspicuous by its silence. In the helicopters’ deal the most shocking part is that the Defence Ministry wanted a helicopter which could achieve a particular height. A French helicopter that met the requirements was available. Yet, Augusta Westland was given preference although it could not fly that high. The government lowered the height required to favour Augusta Westland. Whoever is responsible at the political level and in the bureaucracy should be named. Seldom has the responsibility been apportioned in the past. The practice is not in the interest of the country because they are neither named nor shamed.
Sonia Gandhi has out rightly denied any role in the choppers’ deal. That Ahmed Patel, her political secretary, should have himself come in the open to protect Sonia Gandhi is something worth noticing because normally a spokesman voices the Congress president’s viewpoint. It is a different matter that he used the same opportunity to defend himself because Christian Michel has named him as well. Coming to the Augusta Westland choppers’ deal, the Milan court has punished the bribe takers but was unable to do anything about the bribe-givers. This is where the Indian actors come into play. Now that the country is ruled by the BJP, the CBI can make public all the material which it had collected but was afraid to divulge during the Congress regime. At least, the names should come out.
That parliament has not been able to function because of the rumpus created by the Congress members indicate that the allegation against the party leaders has a grain of truth. This reminds me of the Bofors gun deal in which former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was implicated. Even the top Congress leaders did not know the inside story because Rajiv Gandhi had opened a separate bank account which benefited the people concerned in Italy.
Veteran Congress leader Kamal Nath knows the full story but he would not divulge it because of his loyalty to the party. The other person who was in the picture was Ottavio Quattrocchi. But he was allowed to leave the country even when it had been proved that he was the middleman in the deal. Since the Congress was ruling at the centre, no bar was imposed on his leaving the country. At that time, Sonia Gandhi’s name was also brought up as is the case now.
The CBI should pick up the thread from the remarks made by former Defence Minister, A K Antony, that there was no doubt about the bribery in the choppers’ deal. His remarks are: “…We had initiated the process to blacklist Augusta Westland, its parent company Finmeccanica and all its subsidiaries. We also initiated proceedings for encashing bank guarantees and recovered an amount of Rs 2068 crore. Three helicopters of Augusta Westland have remained confiscated with us.” But, according to Anotny, the Modi government had warmed up to company again, inviting it to participate in Make in India events and even allowing it to bid for contracts.
If I were to hark back on the days of the Jawaharlal Nehru government, Jagjivan Ram was a suspect. In fact, even when there was no concrete proof, his integrity was always in doubt. In the 1990s, the Jain hawala case divulged several names that included top politicians of the country like L K Advani. A diary retrieved from the possession of Jain brothers mentioned several beneficiaries. But hardly a leader, be it from the Congress or from the BJP, was convicted.
Things are different now because the media, particularly television, has become more vigilant and powerful. It is difficult to imagine that after all the publicity which the chopper deal has got it will be allowed go into oblivion without any action. Parliament members realize that the people cannot be taken for granted because now they know the value of their vote. Political parties can hurl charges at one another, but cannot ignore the anger which dishonest deals evoke. Therefore, however loud is the denial from the Congress, action against bribe givers and takers in the chopper deal is inevitable. This is a good development.
—The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, syndicated columnist, human rights activist and author.