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Will A K Antony go the Arun Singh way?

February 25, 2013 10:34 IST

'Once again we have a case where a European armaments manufacturer apparently paid bribes to win a contract from India.'

'Once again we have an honest man in the ministry of defence.'

'Once again there is talk of contracts being cancelled to wring the truth.'

'As a student of history,' says T V R Shenoy, 'I can only draw parallels.'

One of the few political assets remaining in the Congress's arsenal is A K Antony's reputation. But as any military man could inform the defence minister a weapon -- whether a rapier or a rifle -- must be used from time to time if it is not be rendered useless by rust.

Eleven months ago, a single, rather emotional, speech by A K Antony in the Rajya Sabha hushed the sound and the fury over the Tatra Trucks Scandal, which had somehow merged into the drama over the date of birth of the army chief of staff, which had somehow merged into the hullabaloo over a leaked letter by General V K Singh that spoke of lack of preparedness...

But the ongoing Helicopter Scandal is not just about the integrity of A K Antony the individual; it is also about the accountability of A K Antony, the defence minister of India.

The United Progressive Alliance has had only two defence ministers, namely Pranab Mukherjee from May 22, 2004 up to October 24, 2006, and the current incumbent thereafter. This, by the way, makes A K Antony our longest serving defence minister, with an unbroken term in office.

In 2010 the Government of India signed a deal to buy twelve AW101 helicopters for around 560 million euros (approximately Rs 3,600 crore/Rs 36 billion). The helicopters were to be manufactured in Britain by AgustaWestland, which is part of the Italian multinational Finmeccanica.

This contract included an 'integrity clause', which barred the involvement of middlemen or the payment of bribes, and stipulated that the Government of India was free to cancel the contract, to recover the payments if such were made, and to place the company on a black list (barring it from any future contracts with India).

In 2011 the Italian authorities started an investigation into allegations that Finmeccanica, in which the government of Italy is a major shareholder, had created a slush fund, a secret stash of money which was disbursed to politicians.

Pier Francesco Guarguaglini, then chairman of the company, was forced to step down in December 2011 after the investigation reached a critical stage, mostly thanks to pressure by Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti. A career technocrat and not a politician, Monti became prime minister on November 16, 2011 because of the debt crisis, and has no stake in covering up ny scandal.

Early in 2012, the Indian media started speculating whether Finmeccanica's activities had extended to bribery in India too. These were ignored, at least in part because there were so many other scandals going on that nobody had the time to focus on one that was still largely speculation. That is a pity.

On February 12, Giuseppe Orsi, who had succeeded Guarguaglini as chief executive of Finmeccanica, was arrested by the Italians for corruption. The prosecution says he had paid bribes to ensure that India bought the AgustaWestland helicopters. Mario Monti's response was succinct, 'There is a problem with the governance of Finmeccanica at the moment and we must face up to it.'

Who in the Congress party or the Manmohan Singh ministry is going to be equally candid?

Instead of honesty, the Congress spokespersons are giving us stale excuses.

'Changes in the technical specifications (to permit AgustaWestland's candidacy) were made by Brajesh Mishra (Atal Bihari Vajpayee's national security advisor] in 2003,' the Congress says.

The government's own press note exposes this as a fib. It says the requirements were deliberated upon between March 2005 and September 2006, while the Vajpayee ministry left office in May 2004.

It is a stupid excuse anyhow; the specifications could have been changed at any point before the tender was issued -- and that was definitely in the United Progressive Alliance's term.

'The law will take its own course,' the Congress says. And with immense pride they point to a team of Indian investigators flying to Italy.

What is the point? Two days before that team flew off the Italian court looking into the scandal had already ruled that it could not share information at this stage. And who, if anyone, is trying to prevent destruction of evidence?

Let us come down to brass tacks. What are the actual questions?

First, did AgustaWestland pay bribes?

Almost definitely.

Second, was any Indian involved in the scam?

Once again, almost definitely.

Third, did the bribe come out of the contractual payment made by India?

Yet again, almost definitely.

To sum it up, the Indian taxpayer's money was wasted. What can A K Antony do to get it back?

This is where the aforementioned 'integrity clause' of the AgustaWestland contract comes in. The Government of India has the power to tear up the contract, causing a huge potential loss to Finmeccanica.

A K Antony is a man of integrity, and he will spare no effort to unearth the truth. But do not underestimate the forces ranged against him.

I am reminded of an episode from 25 years ago. Arun Singh was one of the late Rajiv Gandhi's Doon School friends, and entered politics at the Congress leader's request. He was minister of state for defence when the Bofors scandal hit the headlines.

Unlike others in the Congress, Arun Singh's position was straightforward, namely that the Bofors bosses should be summoned, to be told that the contract would be scrapped unless they revealed everything.

This resulted in a confrontation with the then prime minister. Rajiv Gandhi is dead and his friend has not written his memoirs, but the long and short of it is that Arun Singh was sacked; he has been living in the hills of Uttarakhand since then, reportedly quite happy but also quite far removed from power.

Once again we have a case where a European armaments manufacturer apparently paid bribes to win a contract from India.

Once again we have an honest man in the ministry of defence.

Once again there is talk of contracts being cancelled to wring the truth.

As a student of history I can only draw parallels; readers may draw their own conclusions.

T V R Shenoy