Okay, it has been a while now since the AugustaWestland VVIP chopper scam took speed, again. With the current Rajya Sabha session witnessing much ruckus after Sonia Gandhi’s alleged involvement in the scam coming to light, the BJP is expected to raise the issue yet again in the next Rajya Sabha proceeding.
This is being regarded as one of the biggest defence scams in the country after the Bofors’ scam.
The VVIP AgustaWestland chopper deal has raised the nation’s eyebrows and is the hot topic in India nowadays.
Here is all you need to know about this biggest defence scam which has started a widespread debate in public. Since it’s going to be a long story, sit back and relax:
So, what actually is the AgustaWestland Chopper scam?
It was August of 1999 when the IAF felt the requirement of new helicopters for VVIPs.
Its fleet of Mi-8 VIP helicopters was completing their total technical life, not being able to fly at nights and at high altitudes (places beyond 2000 metres).
So, with the key requirement of flying high, the IAF proposed the deal to buy new choppers to the government for critical areas like Tiger Hill and Siachen.
After all the formal procedures to buy new choppers like calling tenders, field trials, technical specifications, etc. the government narrowed down to UK-based AgustaWestland in February of 2010.
It signed a contract to buy 12 of its AW101 model helicopters for a whopping ₹3,600 crore for flying VVIPs.
But in 2013, somewhere out there in Italy, CEO of AgustaWestland, Bruno Spagnoli and chairman of AgustaWestland’s parent company Finmeccanica, Guiseppe Orsi were arrested on the charges of international bribing of middlemen to secure the deal with Indian Government i.e. IAF.
The then defence minister, A K Antony immediately put the deal on hold and ordered a probe to CBI. AgustaWestland had already delivered three of the choppers by then.
Proceeding the case in Italy, a court investigating the scam said that the former IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal (Retd.) SP Tyagi was bribed by Finmeccanica to seal the deal with its AgustaWestland.
Following this, the UPA government in 2014 cancelled the deal stating ‘integrity pact was violated’ and allegedly recovered ₹2,068 crore of the total money it paid to book the deal.
But in the following October of 2014, a lower court of Italy acquitted ACM SP Tyagi of all charges and Guiseppe Orsi and Bruno Spagnolin of “charges of international corruption”. But the two were convicted and sentenced to two years on the lesser charge of “false invoicing”.
Waking up the case again, the Milan Court of Appeals, last month, ruled over the lower court verdict and said that Orsi and Spagnolini had paid bribes to Indian officials to win the contract. The court again indicted ACM SP Tyagi for being a beneficiary of the bribes. It said payments were made to Tyagi and his family, including three of his cousins, in cash and by wire transfer.
What were the findings of Italian court in this scam?
The Italian probe alleged that Orsi and others paid money through intermediaries, including Indian nationals and the US-born consultant, Haschke, who also has Italian nationality.
The middlemen were accused of paying the former IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal S P Tyagi, through his cousins, to change the terms of the tender to allow AgustaWestland to win the Indian contract.
They allegedly spoke of routing the money through Mauritius and Tunisia to make it difficult to trace. They thought India would take years to track down the links referring to Indian investigators as “morons”.
The Italians also acted on the testimony of Lorenzo Borgogni, former head of external relations at Finmeccanica, where he alleged that Haschke was hired as an “intermediary” whose compensation was hiked by €10 million to €41 million at the last minute. It was alleged that these 10 million euros were used to bribe Italian politicians.
Okay, how actually is ACM SP Tyagi involved in this?
First thing, Air Chief Marshal (Retd.) SP Tyagi was the Chief of Air Staff when the deal was signed between IAF and AgustaWestland.
As the IAF wanted to purchase helicopters that were capable of flying in high-altitude areas, the first tenders were called with a cut-off that it should fly 6000 m and above.
But after careful evaluation of the AgustaWestland’s AW101, it was found that it was not capable of flying 6,000 m and above as required and could only reach up to 4,572 feet.
It was during ACM SP Tyagi’s tenure as CAS that the altitude ceiling of the helicopters was reduced in the second tender from 6,000 m to 4,500 m to enable AgustaWestland to come back in the race.
It was said that he tweaked with the altitude requirement for the helicopters in AgustaWestland’s favour after allegedly being bribed.
In 2014, a case was registered, where it claimed that nearly ₹423 crore was allegedly paid by Michel, Gerosa and Haschke to swing the deal in favour of AgustaWestland. Out of the total amount, a bribe of about ₹7.68 crore was paid to ACM Tyagi by the alleged middlemen, to the middlemen in India, who were Tyagi’s cousins.
It was done in two tranches, first by way of bank transfer, and then in cash.
However on the orders of the Prime Minister’s Office and to ACM Tyagi’s relief, investigations later showed that the technical specifications had been changed prior to Tyagi’s becoming Chief and not after.
His name came under the scam because he was the Chief when the height requirements were lowered in favour of AgustaWestland.
So what does Sonia Gandhi has to do with it?
Well, she had to be in it. After all, she is an Italian Amma.
Just kidding, the probe by the Italian court also has the names of Sonia Gandhi and senior Congressmen Ahmed Patel, Oscar Fernandes, Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee among the people accused of being Indian middlemen.
The probed conversations between the middlemen of Italy have mentions of “Mrs. Gandhi” being the “driving force behind the VIP”, and she and her “closest advisers” (Ahmed Patel and Pranab Mukherjee) being “the aim of the British high commissioner”.
In the recovered letter dated 15th March 2008, one middleman Michael wrote to a Peter “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, senior adviser Prime Minister Manmohan Singh obviously the main figure, then there’s Ahmed Patel Secretary”.
Given Sonia’s Italian origins, her name in the scam has given the BJP ammunition to attack the Congress in Parliament, where the ruling party is under fire for dismissing the Uttarakhand government.
On the worst side (if it is true) Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Italian counterpart are having talks over allowing Italian marine accused of killing Indian fishermen to go back home in exchange for information on the scam with Sonia’s name in it.
Rajya Sabha proceedings were continually disrupted on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday by the Opposition, seeking a probe into the AgustaWestland chopper case.
And what about the three already delivered choppers?
The IAF is the custodian of these tri-engine helicopters that were delivered to India before the deal was scrapped. The choppers are parked at the Palam airbase in Delhi. The pilots who were trained to fly them have moved to other assignments. Meanwhile, the IAF has drawn out six Mi-17V5 helicopters for use by VVIPs.
The current proceedings
Last month, Guiseppe Orsi and Bruno Spagnolin were sentenced to 4½ and 4 years imprisonment respectively with a fine of €7.5 million euros that have been allegedly paid in bribes in India alone.
The Supreme Court said that it would hear a PIL, which seeks to file an FIR against Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh in the AgustaWestland chopper case.
The government said it will seek a report from the CBI on the deal and initiate the move to blacklist AgustaWestland and its parent company Finmeccanica.
A CBI probe into the matter is ongoing in India.