In Parliament: Congress fights fire with fire over AgustaWestland deal
The Bharatiya Janata Party's plan to use the AgustaWestland deal against the Congress boomeranged as the grand old party returned fire. Former defence minister AK Antony accused Narendra Modi's government of allowing the banned company to participate in the Prime Minister's flagship Make in India campaign, despite opposition from Central Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement Directorate.
Raising questions about the government's role in allowing a blacklisted AgustaWestland to participate as a vendor or sub-contractor in Make in India, the Congress leader said Modi and the then defence minister, after consulting the Attorney General, passed an order on 22 August, 2014, allowing Finmeccanica and its subsidiary companies to get into a joint venture with any individual in India.
Rotocraft, a joint venture between Tata Sons and AgustaWestland, was allowed by the Foreign Investment Promotion Board to invest in India, Antony said. "Why did the Prime Minister allow a blacklisted company to invest in this country? We will expose their negligence and also their nexus with this company. The country will know in the days to come about the dealings of the government with this company".
The Congress even targeted Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, who were "indicted" by the CAG for buying AgustaWestland helicopters that led to a loss to the state exchequer. "Why didn't Modi government take any action against its own chief ministers?" questioned Congress spokesperson RS Surjewala. He added that the CAG in its reports have indicated that a loss of Rs 1 crore 14 lakh and Rs 65 lakh was incurred while buying the AgustaWestland helicopters in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan respectively.
The government's decision to allow an AgustaWestland joint venture to bid for 100 naval utility helicopters for the Indian Navy was also highlighted by the Congress. Surjewala raised doubts whether the Prime Minister struck a deal with his Italian counterpart to free two Italian marines accused of killing fishermen for information on the Congress leadership.
Interestingly, the party also questioned whether there was a connection between former Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi, NSA Chief Ajit Doval and Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Nipendra Mishra, who are all part of the Vivekananda International Foundation - a public policy think tank affiliated to the RSS. Tyagi's name features prominently in the 225-page judgement by the Italian Court and he is said to have received cash in favour for the AgustaWestland Rs 3600 crore deal.
Presenting its defence, Antony said that the procedure to procure 12 helicopters for VVIPs had a Clause of Integrity Pact, which allowed the government to reserve its right to cancel the deal in case of corruption, engagement of middlemen or any other corruption on part of the company.
"That is why, the moment we received from Italy that there is a possibility of involvement of middlemen in this contract, day one onwards - the entire Government of India under UPA went on action. First, it tried through our Embassy in Rome to find out the details of the case and since the contract was with AgustaWestland UK, we pursued with the UK Government with the help of Ministry of External Affairs, but we were not able to get tangible evidence at that time but we did not leave it there, we pursued it," said Antony.
He further clarified that for the first time in Indian history the government fought a case in Italy and became a party in the Italian Courts in Naples to get records. This allowed the then UPA government to send representatives to observe each hearing of the court. "Besides, we decided to cancel the contract and also the Government ordered a CBI enquiry to find out the truth. When it was proved that there was a middleman, we not only took action to get back the advance but also the Bank Guarantee of the Company,"Antony said.
He added that after the CBI probe was ordered, the government got more money than it had paid. "We won the case and got entire Bank Guarantee - as a result, we not only got the advance amount we paid to them, we got more money - it is in the statement, we got more money from them, Advance paid plus Bank Guarantee, besides, we cancelled the contract as well," Antony said.
He pointed out that the previous UPA government started the process of blacklisting the company, but the then Attorney General raised some objections, which was followed by Lok Sabha elections leaving little or no space for Congress to pursue the case.
Meanwhile, the Congress put a brave show and prevented the BJP from hijacking Parliament over the issue. During the second day of the second half of the Budget Session, senior Congress leaders gathered at Sonia Gandhi's residence at 10 Janpath, to strategise for what lay ahead. Speaking to reporters Sonia Gandhi said, "I have done nothing wrong. The government is there for two years, an inquiry is there. Why don't they complete it as early as possible...and impartially?" asked Mrs Gandhi.
Her closest aide, Ahmed Patel said, "Let them hang me if there is an iota of evidence". Patel, like Mrs Gandhi, is referred to in documents that were reviewed by an Italian court before it decided bribes had been paid to Indians.
In the Rajya Sabha, a mere mention of Sonia Gandhi's name by Subramanian Swamy caused Congress leaders to rush to the Well of the House and disrupt proceedings. Meanwhile in the Lok Sabha, the Speaker Sumitra Mahajan disallowed a discussion on the chopper deal, resulting in the smooth functioning of the House.
Edited by Anna Verghese
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