NEW DELHI,IFTIKHAR GILANI : The ruling BJP and its ministers have hit the Opposition Congress where it hurts the most, by pointing fingers towards Nehru family and associates for allegedly taking kickbacks in a Rs 3,600-crore deal to buy 12 helicopters for use by VVIPs.
Earlier, the ministers had dragged Congress president Sonia Gandhi in the case of allegedly changing affidavit in the Ishrat Jahan encounter case. Such was the outrage, that Sonia, who usually plays cool, came out herself with aggression, describing accusations as false and baseless. “I am not afraid of anyone cornering me…All the accusations they are throwing at us are false, baseless,” Sonia told reporters in the Parliament House.
Analysts feel that the deal with the Italian company AgustaWestland is making another Bofors for the Congress, which may not ultimately implicate any of its leaders, but will damage them politically. The government has made up its mind to go hammer and tongs against the Congress on the issue, to settle scores for not allowing the Rajya Sabha to function. It is believed that about Rs 250 crore were paid as kickbacks to politicians and officials to clinch the deal.
Congress’ main worry is that the 225-page judgment of the appeal court in Milan (Italy) has recorded middleman Guido Ralph Haschke, identifying their leaders, when photos were shown to him during the trial by the Italian prosecution.
The Italian court has also recorded note of prosecutors purportedly written by middleman Christian Michel in March 2008 to Peter Hullet, India head of Anglo-Indian company, revealing that he had advised the people handling the VVIP helicopter deal to target people close to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, including the prime minister and some of her closest advisers, to win the contract. “Dear Peter, since Mrs Gandhi is the driving force behind the VIP, she will no longer fly with MI8. Mrs Gandhi and her closest advisers are the aim of the High Commissioner,” said the letter of Michel seized by the probe team.
It also mentions Sonia’s political secretary Ahmed Patel, Pranab Mukherjee, M Veerappa Moily, then national security adviser M K Narayanan and Vinay Kumar, also a defence ministry official in charge of IAF procurement.
The judgment also produces a handwritten note by Orsi from jail in July 2013 asking his people to contact then Italian Prime Minister Monti or Ambassador Teracciano to call Dr Singh. But the former NSA Narayanan says, he is not aware of any call from Italian PM to Manmohan Singh. “Normally I would have known if Italian PM called Manmohan Singh, I am not aware of such a call,” he said.
Pertinent to mention that according to documents in 2004, during the previous NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then NSA Brajesh Mishra recommended that the helicopters should be able to fly at a height of 15,000 feet, reducing the original requirement of 18,000 feet. This allowed AgustaWestland, whose helicopters fly at lower altitudes, to qualify for the contract.
Ahmed Patel, who rarely interacts with the media, too, on Wednesday, walked towards TV cameras to deny allegations. “On what basis is there reference to my name? It’s not my handwriting. I have not written anything. This is malicious,” he said. “If the government is alleging, then they should investigate. If anything is there against me, they should find out and hang me,” he added.
Sonia said the previous UPA government had ordered a CBI inquiry into the whole Agusta deal in 2013. “The Modi government has been in power for two years, yet they haven’t been able to complete the inquiry. Why,” she asked, demanding completion of the inquiry impartially.
Her political secretary Ahmed Patel, said: “We unequivocally reject their allegations on Agusta. We shall go all out to expose their hollow claims.” He further said: “Fact is, once again BJP makes a poor attempt to spin a web of deceit.” He said the uncorroborated notes, which are part of Italian judgment annexure, have been in public domain for over two years.
Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh gave a new twist to the scam, tweeting: “Even Chattisgarh Govt bought Augusta Westland much over the market price as objected by CAG. Would BJP pl respond?” In another tweet, he referred to a probe earlier ordered by the defence ministry into an AgustaWestland helicopter bought by the Rajasthan government in 2005 during earlier tenure of Vasundhara Raje as the chief minister.
Antony, who was specially called to address the media asserted that the Modi government is indulging in this cover up conspiracy to hide its sinister role in helping and promoting a banned company AgustaWestland and its parent company, Finmecanica. Antony said Agusta was blacklisted and yet the Modi government cleared its joint venture with Tatas to produce upgraded version of reconnaissance and surveillance helicopters in India in 2014 and allowed it to bid for 100 Naval Utility Helicopters with an Indian corporate.
In Rajya Sabha, angry Congress MPs stormed into the well and blocked ruling BJP member Subramanian Swamy’s attempt to drag their party president Sonia Gandhi’s name in the helicopter bribery scam. When the House re-assembled after 10 minutes, the deputy chairman expunged remarks against Sonia and snubbed Dr Swamy that he has been a member of the House back in 70s and knows the rules that name of a member of the other House is not taken. He told Dr Swamy that he was not admonishing him since it was his first day in this House. Opposition leader Ghulam Nabi Azad again sought his apology but let it go to allow the question hour for the first time on chairman Hamid Ansari’s plea not to disrupt it everyday.