Almost three decades separate the Bofors scam and the AgustaWestland chopper deal. But when Congress president Sonia Gandhi declared that she had nothing to hide and that she was not afraid of anyone, it must have felt like the nightmare of Bofors revisiting the Congress.
On August 6, 1987, prime minister Rajiv Gandhi said in the Lok Sabha that neither him nor any of his family members had received any bribe in the purchase of the Bofors guns. And 29 years later, on April 27, 2016, Sonia said, “We have nothing to hide. Let them take my name. I am not afraid of anyone cornering me.” If Bofors proved to be disastrous for Rajiv’s political career, the Agusta revelations have put Sonia in the centre of allegations that Congress leaders were among the beneficiaries of kickbacks in the Rs 3,600-crore deal.
The Congress president has put up a brave face against a belligerent BJP, which is going all out attacking her after an Italian court recently handed out punishments to those who paid the bribes in the deal. The judgment referred to a note allegedly written by one of the middlemen, which spoke about “Signora Gandhi” as the “driving force” behind the deal. The BJP has gleefully latched on to the reference.
The similarities between Bofors and the Agusta deal have been too tempting for the BJP to pass over. Like Bofors, the Agusta scam was busted on foreign soil. Both were defence deals. If it was Sonia’s Italian connection in Bofors, middleman Ottavio Quattrocchi, which raised questions about the involvement of the Gandhis, in Agusta, her name figured in a note purportedly written by one of the middlemen who worked for the UK arm of the Italian company Finmeccanica, the parent company of AgustaWestland. The BJP has pounced on the Italian connection. “She should find out from her relatives why the court gave such an order after two years. Why did the court write such things that have created big trouble for her in India?” said Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Rajiv Pratap Rudy. Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad drew a parallel between Quattrocchi and Christian Michel, the middleman in the Agusta deal.
The BJP has rolled out its big guns against Sonia, with party president Amit Shah leading with a number of questions for her to answer. The leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Ghulam Nabi Azad, said it looked as if the entire Narendra Modi cabinet had been tasked with attacking the Congress leadership. “From morning to evening, ministers are giving [sound] bites and interviews, hurling allegations against Congress leaders,” he said.
That Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi’s name does not figure directly in connection with the deal is a major relief for the Congress, but there are allegations linking his close aide Kanishka Singh to a realty firm, which had one of the Agusta middlemen as a director. However, Congress leaders said Agusta would not be another Bofors. To begin with, Agusta does not have the same kind of resonance. “It has not shocked like Bofors did. It has also not resulted in a kind of outrage among political parties that Bofors led to,” said a Congress leader.
As a senior Congress leader reasoned, Rajiv was prime minister when the Bofors controversy broke out and that made it more damaging for him. He, as prime minister, was duty bound to safeguard the interests of the country, and the perception that went out was that he had sold out the country and betrayed the Indian soldier. On the contrary, Sonia is in the opposition, so the expectation is that the damage done to her credibility will be far less. Also, the assessment is that the Congress has already been punished on the issue of corruption in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014.
Congress sources said the Manmohan Singh government had immediately encashed bank guarantees of close to Rs 240 crore deposited in Indian banks. It also filed and won a case leading to the encashment of bank guarantees worth Rs 1,747 crore (approx.) in a court in Milan, Italy, on May 23, 2014. The government recovered Rs 2,068 crore from AgustaWestland as against a payment of Rs 1,620 crore besides confiscating three helicopters. Moreover, it put on hold all contracts with Finmeccanica and its affiliated companies and also began the process of blacklisting the firm. Randeep Surjewala, chairman of the Congress media department, said the decision to change the specifications for the Agusta chopper was taken by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. “The decision was taken after three meetings in the PMO. It is part of record,” he said.
The Rajya Sabha saw a heated debate on the issue on May 4, with the BJP members accusing the Manmohan government of having changed the specifications of the chopper to suit AgustaWestland and eliminate other vendors. BJP leader Subramanian Swamy stopped short of naming Sonia, but hinted that the specifications were changed under pressure from her.
However, former defence minister A.K. Antony took up the issues related to the Agusta deal in a point-by-point manner. “We were determined to find out the truth. Hence we became a party to the case against the company. We fought the case in Italy by engaging an Italian lawyer,” he said. He also reminded that the UPA had proposed in Parliament that the matter be looked into by a Joint Parliamentary Committee, but the then leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, said it was a “useless thing.” “Don’t politicise the issue,” said Antony. “Complete the investigation and take the strongest action against whoever has taken money.” Antony’s response was in keeping with the Congress strategy to emphasise the action that the UPA had taken against the company and contrast that with the concessions given to the firm by the Modi government.
Modi had called a meeting of his ministers, including Venkaiah Naidu, Rajnath Singh and Manohar Parrikar, before the debate to ensure that a strong and well-reasoned attack was mounted against the Congress. Defence Minister Parrikar briefed the prime minister on the points that he would make in his speech. “The court in Italy has said there are omissions in various stages of decision making. The fact that corruption has occurred has been brought out in extensive detail in recent judgments by the Italy court,” he said. And in an oblique reference to the Congress leadership, he said an invisible hand seemed to be guiding the action or inaction of the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate, which were probing the deal.
Sonia, too, called an unprecedented meeting on the eve of the discussion to chalk out the party’s strategy in the Rajya Sabha, opting to deploy Antony, Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Ahmed Patel. Hardly ever has the party held a meeting of such a kind before a short duration discussion. It was a rare speech by Patel in the Rajya Sabha. Sonia’s political secretary is known to work discreetly and he is not heard much. But he, too, made a spirited defence of himself and his party, saying he was ready to quit public life if anything was found against him. Having made its point, the Congress camp walked out of the house, demanding a Supreme Court-monitored probe into allegations of corruption.
The Congress realises that the BJP’s aim is to target Sonia and keep chipping away at her image. In response, the party has thrown back at the BJP questions on the concessions given to AgustaWestland, most importantly the reversal of the firm’s blacklisting within 40 days of the action being taken. It has also asked why Finmeccanica was permitted to be a part of Modi's Make in India programme and allowed participate in the Aero India Exhibition.
It has linked the Agusta scam to the Modi government’s “weak arguments” in the UN arbitration court in the Italian marines case, saying their release is a quid pro quo for the revelations in the chopper deal. The Congress also plans to raise the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on oil and gas exploration in the KG Basin, which has indicted the Gujarat government under Modi, as return fire.
Obstructing Parliament, however, is not an option for the party. There was a similar situation when Sonia and Rahul had to appear before a court in the National Herald case. The Congress leadership has burnt its fingers by raking up the issue in Parliament. The perception that went out did not favour the party as it seemed it was obstructing the functioning of Parliament to protect the Gandhis. The Congress is treading cautiously even as the BJP seeks to keep the corruption pot boiling.