OPINION

The chopper challenge for the CBI

THROWBACK:“Comparisons between AgustaWestland and Bofors are not ill-founded. Both illustrate how easy it is to make inroads into the political spectrum and administrative echelons with the help of just one unscrupulous middleman.” Picture shows the Congress president at a campaign meet in Odisha, in 2009. — FILE PHOTO: ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

THROWBACK:“Comparisons between AgustaWestland and Bofors are not ill-founded. Both illustrate how easy it is to make inroads into the political spectrum and administrative echelons with the help of just one unscrupulous middleman.” Picture shows the Congress president at a campaign meet in Odisha, in 2009. — FILE PHOTO: ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY  

The AgustaWestland (AW) scam is proof — if at all one were needed — that in India, very little in government moves without bribing those in high places, be it politicians or civil servants. It is poor consolation that things are not very different in many other countries as well. We are aware of the recent happenings in Brazil where President Dilma Rousseff is on the verge of being eased out of office after impeachment by Parliament. A recent report from Pakistan speaks of the dismissal for corruption of a few army officers at the very top. There are any number of other countries where too only money talks. This appalling scene gives no licence, however, to permissiveness of the kind that stalks every Indian now.

The question is: how does one react to ‘Choppergate’? Will we be right in ignoring it as one of those usual scams for which India has become notorious? Or should we indulge in some hyperbole and rabble-rousing so that AgustaWestland does not go the Bofors way?

The Indian who had been exposed to the Bofors scam in the late 1980s will understand the implications of this latest episode better than the current generation. Bofors ignited very strong public emotions bordering on the repulsive. My strong apprehension is that since then we have become so immune to public servant corruption that we may even be inclined to let Choppergate pass. Nothing can be more grievous for the nation’s credibility as an economic power capable of challenging China’s primacy than condoning this. If we do not want to sink deeper than have already, we need to make a lot of noise and build public opinion assiduously, undeterred by vested elements that have already launched their familiar obfuscatory tactics.

The Bofors resonance

AgustaWestland is said to make good helicopters, the same way Bofors manufactured quality howitzers. That did not, however, give them the licence to do whatever they wanted in order to promote their goods. Bofors indulged in similar misdemeanour and got caught. Now it is AgustaWestland’s turn.

Comparisons between AgustaWestland and Bofors are not ill-founded. Both illustrate how easy it is to make inroads into the political spectrum and administrative echelons with the help of just one unscrupulous middleman. In Bofors, Ottavio Quattrocchi played the chauvinistic card unabashedly and brazenly so as to get access to the most powerful household in India. History is possibly repeating itself, with the slight difference that James Christian Michel, a British national now living in Dubai, the agent for procuring business for his client who made helicopters, did not himself possibly know the ‘Family’, but his father, another defence middleman, did. Michel’s claim that he never met a Gandhi needs to be verified. The point, however is, unlike Quattrocchi, who lived in India — he was a familiar figure at the Delhi Gymkhana — Michel did not have to hobnob with a Gandhi to swing things the way he wanted to. Lots of crooks can be deemed to have learnt a lot from Bofors and Quattrocchi, and personal meetings with decision-makers are no longer necessary, and therefore not the order of the day. Technology has wrought incredible wonders to benefit even the most heavy-footed of operatives in modern business who can now peddle their wares unobtrusively, without fuss and without a furtive eye being cast.

The name itself was a giveaway in the case of Quattrocchi; he never hid his connections anyway. So when he made news in connection with Bofors, not many in the corridors of power in Delhi were surprised. In contrast, Mr. Michel is not a well-known personality in India because he has never lived here. But he is known to have made several trips to India in the past two decades, a fact unnoticed till now. This fact makes sense in the wake of Choppergate. Like David Headley’s infamous but fruitful visits to India prior to 26/11, Mr. Michel’s trips to India will have to be probed into very deeply.

Names in the cross hairs

In fairness to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, it must be said that there is no report to suggest that she was a direct beneficiary of the bribes Finmeccanica, AgustaWestland’s parent company in Italy, paid to secure the contract for 12 AgustaWestland AW101 helicopters in 2010, a deal subsequently cancelled. But it is not incorrect to refer here to the concept of the ‘needle of suspicion’, that may not clinch issues in criminal proceedings but will certainly form the basis for further investigation. Ms. Gandhi’s name finds mention as the “driving force” in the Italian appeals court judgment that overturned the lower court’s verdict. This is one major ground for an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which has already sent letters rogatory to several countries.

Former Indian Air Force (IAF) chief S.P. Tyagi’s cousins are alleged to have received large sums of money in the deal. The handwritten note of Mr. Michel [advising AgustaWestland officials on how to go about securing the deal] is a goldmine of information. It has to pass the rigorous test of corroboration by independent sources and other contemporaneously recorded information. The former IAF chief’s integrity has been severely questioned. In the interest of the morale of the Services, he needs to be either indicted or have his name cleared.

The CBI has an arduous assignment on hand. Its credibility in the post-Ranjit Sinha period has improved slightly. But it has still to go a long way in re-establishing its professionalism and neutrality. Its performance in the case will be closely watched.

Apart from a critical manpower shortage, the CBI will have to contend with factors that are beyond its control. In the AgustaWestland case, its first task will have to be getting custody of Mr. Michel, the middleman. No other task is as vital as this. The CBI has already taken up the matter with the U.K. government, presumably through Interpol. Such efforts take a long time to bear fruit. Then come bank records which will establish the recipients of the moneys doled out by AgustaWestland/Finmeccanica. We know how hard it was in the Bofors case to ferret out such evidence across the globe, especially from Swiss banks. All this gives me the feeling that this would be a long-drawn-out investigation that might end up not proving anything. Whether it would actually see the guilty go to prison is anybody’s guess, but the investigation would definitely damage many reputations along the way.

R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director.

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