The extradition of Christian Michel, the British middleman, accused of bribing politicians during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA’s) rule to grab a chopper deal, had brought the AgustaWestland scam back on the radars last month. And after being overshadowed by issues such as farm loan waivers, the bribery scandal is back in the limelight again.
On 29 December, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) told a special court that Michel has taken the name of “Mrs Gandhi” and referred to “the son of Italian lady” who is going to be the “next Prime Minister of India” during interrogation, which might refer to Sonia Gandhi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi. The agency also informed the court that the middleman was trying to misuse legal assistance during his interrogation by passing chits to his lawyers asking how to answer questions on Sonia Gandhi. The court extended Michel’s remand and imposed restrictions on Michel meeting his lawyers during ED custody.
In a series of reports over the last few weeks, some incriminating details about the alleged involvement of Congress leaders have come to the surface.
One, in a letter written to AgustaWestland chief executive officer (CEO) Giuseppe Orsi on 29 July 2009, Michel had claimed that no one, including the Prime Minister’s Office, had problems with the deal except the finance minister, who may not have been treated with “enough respect”. A “mutual friend” and the “party leader” will talk to the minister, Michel noted in the letter, adding, “If the Cabinet had met and the FM was not pacified we could suffer months of delay”. Former president Pranab Mukherjee was India’s finance minister in 2009.
Two, in another letter to Orsi on 28 August, the middleman talks about pressurising the Prime Minister through his “party elites”. The letter suggests he had access to confidential information, including conversations between the then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former prime minister Manmohan Singh, discussions of the Cabinet and Cabinet Committee on Security.
Three, CEO Orsi had information about a tweak in the eligibility norms that would allow his company to bid for the contract more than a year before the UPA government issued tenders in September 2006. This tweak was the lowering of the operating altitude requirement for the helicopters to be bought.
Four, in a letter to other middleman Guido Ralph Haschke, Michel had registered his protest over the “lack of support” by the “family”. In the correspondence, shared by the Swiss authorities, he told Haschke that there was no need to pay the “family” till the deal is inked. During the hearing of the AgustaWestland case at an Italian court, Haschke had claimed that the “family” meant the Tyagi brothers. But this is unlikely, given the correspondence related to 2009, two years after S P Tyagi retired as air chief. Tyagi has been released on bail.
“The game is not yet up.. there are still pieces to be moved,” Michel wrote.
And five, the CBI has said that PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the world’s leading auditors, found “serious deviations” in the transfer of money from AgustaWestland to Michel’s two companies and recommended an “extensive audit”. However, Michel’s company chose another auditor to make up the records. This could potentially be the first step towards establishing a money trail.
These details, along with Michel’s reference to “Mrs Gandhi” and “the son of Italian lady” during interrogation, are likely to increasingly trouble the Congress.
The government, which had lost the game on Rafale deal to the opposition due to its poor communication strategy, looks in no mood to let this opportunity slip away. And unlike the Congress, which drove a campaign alleging corruption in the Rafale deal without evidence, the government has incriminating proof.
And it seems the Congress’ rhetoric is coming back to bite it. Michel has revealed that Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, which Rahul Gandhi recently said was a “strategic asset in aerospace” to which the country was indebted to, was dropped from the chopper deal and the contract was offered to Tata instead.
Rahul Gandhi may soon find himself in the line of fire and he only has himself to blame for it. In an attempt to bluff his way to power by making the Rafale deal, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Bofors, he may have invited another Bofors on the Congress.
Prakhar Gupta is a senior editor at Swarajya. He tweets @prakharkgupta.
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