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Congress battle-ready to fight the chopper scam

By Sheela Bhatt
February 25, 2013 21:51 IST
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Unless the name of a Congress-linked person or leader having links with the middlemen is revealed, the target of the Opposition party will remain blurred, says Sheela Bhatt

The Parliament session that began five days back has seen a confident Congress party ready to take on the onslaught of the Opposition parties on the Agusta Westland chopper deal.

The confidence level of Congressmen in private and in public on the issue of payment Rs 360 crore as kickbacks in the Rs 3,546 crore chopper deal has perplexed leaders of the Opposition parties.

The case is serious and shameful but, yet, the government and the Congress party seem ready to take on the Opposition parties.  

A K Antony, the defence minister, is facing the music because the bribery scam took place under his nose, but the party men are taking the scam in their stride.

It’s not that they think the allegations are bogus. No one has said so, so far.

But the tension amongst party men was eased when Kamal Nath, parliamentary affairs minister, said the government was ready for the Joint Parliamentary Committee to look into the chopper deal for buying 12 helicopters.

Congressmen have taken the cue that if the government is ready for a thorough probe it means the top leadership (the Gandhis) is not worried about a probe.  

Antony was candid and dramatic in his confessions, and his resolve to fight back. “Our hands are clean,” he said.

On February 19, half-smirking, half-anxious, Antony said, “We have nothing to hide.” 

The fact sheet, as the media has pointed out, has highlighted former defence minister and then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s role in the process that ultimately approved the Agusta Westland choppers. Many observers are still decoding the facts given out by the defence ministry.  

However, Kamal Nath’s confident bid for the JPC in the chopper scam will not cool down the Opposition parties. They are likely to up the ante as soon as the budget is presented.

However, the chopper scam might not turn politically as big as the Bofors scam unless the Italian prosecutors are successful in putting pressure on the parent Italian company and the subsidiary British company, who made the deal and paid the kickbacks to Indians via middlemen. The revelation so far suggests that kickbacks were given but unless any Congress-linked person or the name of a party leader having links with the middlemen is revealed, the “target” of the Opposition party will remain blurred. A sharp political attack is possible only if the target is clear.

A senior leader of the Opposition party told, “Target fix hoga to Bofors banega.” What he meant was that to launch a political movement against the kickbacks, some Congress leader or a Congress-linked company's name has to emerge in the investigation by the Italians or the Central Bureau of Investigation through Abhishek Verma’s interrogation.

It is believed in the corridors of power that arms dealer Abhishek Verma, who is in jail in a case related to the Official Secrets Act, is key to the chopper case.

A leading advocate of the Supreme Court has been revealing vital details about the case to the media about Verma’s involvement.

Abhishek Verma is a slippery client. He also has connections with a few young members of the Bharatiya Janta Party and other Opposition parties. He has been in the fast lane of international arms dealing where deals revolve around wine, women and black money. Verma has quite a few dirty secrets to hide.

It is no surprise that the government is ready to take on the Opposition parties on the chopper scam. The issue has been in the public domain since a year and although the Indian media collectively picked it up late, it surely gave the government and the party time to build up a defence.

When asked a senior member of the Congress party about the deficit of credibility in public perception about his government on the chopper scam, he said, “Media ran a campaign against Virbhadra Singh on the issue of corruption but he still won in Himachal Pradesh. The rhetoric on such issues doesn’t decide the fate of the party in the election.”

“Total sum of local issues decides the party’s fate”, he added.

He said that issues like the chopper scam will not decide the fate of the UPA.

It will be interesting to watch how the Opposition parties present their anger on the issue of the Rs 360 crore kickbacks in the post-budget session.

The Congress doubts if they will be able to go beyond the rhetoric.

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi