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Fierce debate in Rajya Sabha over AgustaWestland issue

Source: PTI
May 05, 2016 00:27 IST
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The AgustaWestland issue was fiercely debated in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday with members of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress blaming each other for the multi-crore-rupee scam that resurfaced last month.

The Congress slammed the government over the row, saying it was trying to "vilify the head of a political party" on the basis of mere "insinuation and innuendo" and was attempting to cover up for "disillusionment" with its misgovernance.

Putting up a spirited defence in the Rajya Sabha as the House took up a short duration discussion on the raging controversy, Congress member Abhishek Manu Singhvi responded point-by-point to allegations of wrongdoings leveled by the ruling dispensation against the previous United Progressive Alliance government.

Earlier, Bhupendra Yadav of the BJP, who initiated the debate, pointed fingers at the UPA government over its role in the deal to purchase 12 VVIP helicopters.

Singhvi, while defending the UPA dispensation, attributed "innuendos" against its leaders Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi or Ahmed Patel to the "visceral hatred" of BJP.

"The interest appears to be to keep the pot boiling, not to reach a conclusion and keep finger pointing," he said alleging that the BJP was not interested in finding the real culprits.

Slamming the ruling dispensation for its "hubris" and "arrogance of power," Singhvi said the Congress is not going to be intimidated by such tactics.

Ridiculing BJP's attempt to link certain initials like "CP, VP and AP" to the deal, Singhvi cited the hawala case in which an initial 'LKA' had featured and the high court had said the presence of initials constituted no evidence.

It was "hypocrisy" of the ruling party in applying "double standards" as leader of the House Arun Jaitley had in the hawala case argued initials have no evidentiary value, Singhvi said.

He said that 'AP' could stand for many people including the present chief minister of Gujarat.

The Congress leader said not a single allegation that was being touted was part of the Central Bureau of Investigation or the Enforcement Directorate findings.

"We are relying on the interpretations and misrepresentations of an Italian court," he said adding the official translation of the judgement is still not available.

He said the name of Congress President Sonia Gandhi merely figures in one letter where it is said that she would be among the VVIPs who would fly in the helicopter.

He added that even Guido Haschke, one of the alleged middlemen, had also said that he does not know what the initial 'AP' stands for.

"I hope we collect all APs. That illustrates the problem we face when we start using initials," Singhvi said.

As former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former Defence Minister A K Antony watched, Singhvi said while his party is not claiming "everything is hunky dory" with regard to the deal, he alleged that Modi government was trying to "foist corruption charges against those not involved."

"We believe that something wrong happened, my dispute is not that," the Congress leader said asking the government whether it was not damaging investigation and letting culprits escape, by targeting its rivals.

He said that luckily it is understood that the word 'family', which has come up in the case, pertains to the "Tyagi family", otherwise for some people it would have meant "only one family", an apparent reference to the Gandhis.

He stressed that Antony as the defence minister had cancelled the deal, ordered a CBI probe. The UPA government, he said had paid Rs 1586 crore but recovered Rs 2062 cr from AgustaWestland besides three helicopters worth Rs 900 crore were impounded.

Singhvi raised questions as to why the National Democratic Alliance government had allowed AgustaWestland's parent companies, including Finmeccanica, to continue to do business.

He also claimed that one such entity had been given the Foreign Investment Promotion Board approval and it had even participated in aero displays at Yellahanka air force station.

He debunked the claims that specifications in the AgustaWestland deal were modified in violation of established norms.

Earlier, initiating the high voltage debate, Yadav, who had given notice for a short duration discussion, said it was a "serious" matter that several decades after independence, transparency in defence deals has not been ushered in.

Yadav said that norms were repeatedly modified, even after over-ruling reservations expressed by Antony and Manmohan Singh. He wanted the real culprits to be punished.

He said a recommendation had been made to change the MI-8 helicopters for VVIP travel in 1999 when the NDA was in power and it was emphasised that the procurement should not be done through a single vendor system.

Quoting extensively from a Comptroller and auditor general report on the matter, he claimed that the single-vendor aspect was ignored, tests were allowed to be conducted abroad and even the specifications of altitude were reduced to 4500 feet from the earlier benchmark of 6000 feet.

Singhvi, however, mentioned that it was Brajesh Mishra, the Principal Secretary to then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had mentioned that a specification of 6000 feet should be reduced as it was leading to a single vendor situation.

Yadav also claimed that several favours were done by a "generous" UPA, including allowing trials of the helicopters to be held abroad.

The BJP member also claimed that the helicopters were purchased at a cost six times higher that the estimated cost and the number of the helicopters to be purchase was increased from 9 to 12.

Claiming that defence procurement procedures were not followed, he said even after paying a higher price, the warranty was reduced.

"One of the countries has taken action against the people who had paid bribes, we should take action against the people who took them, no matter which political party they belong to," Yadav said.

Singhvi, however, rejected these assertions and said that holding trials of helicopters is not a "sin" and it is allowed under the defence procurement policies.

He said the government appeared to be pressing these allegations in view of its recent electoral losses in some of the states. He also referred to a TV interview of an Italian judge in which he says that there is no evidence against Sonia Gandhi.

Before the debate began, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar requested that he be allowed to place the facts chronologically before the House, but it was rejected by Deputy Chairman P J Kurien after opposition members vociferously protested saying such a move is against tradition.

BJP leader Subramaniam Swamy took the fight directly into the Congress' camp, saying that those named in a note written by one of the alleged middleman should be questioned by the CBI and if necessary it should be done in custody.

Citing Italian court's documents, he alleged that a bribe of 30 million euros was paid, out of which 6 million euros went to Indian Air Force personnel, 8.4 million euros to bureaucrats and Rs 125 crore to 'AP'.

Swamy's speech was repeatedly disrupted by the Congress members, who created ruckus with its leaders insisting on authentication of whatever he was reading from. He replied that he was reading from the same note that Singhvi read from.

He said if he were to authenticate, then Singhvi also should do so as there cannot be separate rules for different people.

In the midst of exchanges, Deputy Chairman P J Kurien said both will have to authenticate. Singhvi then authenticated his documents.

Refuting the Congress allegation, Swamy, who was nominated as Rajya Sabha member only last week, said the NDA government had in 2003 only wanted the IAF to see if a single vendor situation can be avoided and that the views of the Special Protection Group should be taken.

"It is a lie to say that the NDA had lowered the flying height from 6,000 feet to 4,500 feet," he said, citing a 2013 Parliament reply of then Defence Minister A K Antony in which he said that in 2004 the IAF had said 6,000 feet was an "inescapable necessity".

He said the tender issued in 2006 had incorporated the changes.

Alleging corruption during the UPA government, Swamy said, however, that he knows personally that then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would do no wrong but "he takes orders easily". He added that Singh's evidence should be recorded. 

Wondering why Antony was overruled when it came to Agusta, the BJP leader said, "From my personal knowledge I will say it wasn't Dr. Manmohan Singh."

He said the helicopter, AW101, which was bought, was not used for field trial.

Trials in Italy took place on a different chopper and AW101 was shown as passed, he said, alleging this was a "fraud" committed on the people of India which is prosecutable under Section 420.

He said another parameter that was changed by the UPA which ensured that only Agusta chopper made the cut was to increase the cabin height of chopper from 1.45 metres to 1.80 metres.

The BJP leader said the IAF in January 2006 gave its benchmark estimate for this deal as Rs 793 crore which was approved by Antony.

"In September 2008, contract negotiations committee arbitrarily fixed Rs 4,877.5 cr as the deal which was six times," he said.

Swamy said the original proposal was to buy eight helicopters but after it became clear that Agusta was only one to qualify, the UPA decided to buy four more.

He noted that the CAG had said that when the already present eight helicopters, bought in 1988, were hardly utilized, then what was need for the additional four.

He also asked the government to look into the issue of money being paid to the middleman to manage Indian media so that favourable reports in favour of the company comes.

Ram Gopal Yadav of Samajwadi Party demanded to know as to what the BJP government was doing in the last two years and why did they fail to nab any of the accused.

"As soon as the issue came to knowledge, deal was canceled and a CBI probe was ordered by the defence minister...Three helicopters were impounded. You (BJP) are in power for two years but why was no action taken against anybody," Yadav asked.

Terming allegations and counter allegations in the deal as unfortunate, Yadav said it lowered the morale of defence forces and such issues were raised only to drive political mileage out of it.

He said earlier when the Bofors scam had surfaced, "the then government had to go...The then defence secretary was sent to jail and he died" but later the same Bofors guns were used in Kargil war.

Launching a scathing attack on the government, Sharad Yadav of Janata Dal-United said why was it making a drama of the entire episode instead of acting on the people accused of accepting bribe.

"You are in power for two years. Your work is to act. Corruption is a major have the ED, the CBI...all are there. Why are you not allowing Parliament to run...Why is there a new Parliament outside...," Yadav said and challenged the government to "bring even a rat".

Asserting that the matter will remain inconclusive, he said it was unfortunate that India and Pakistan were engaged in fights and buying equipment and asked the government why did it fail to manufacture equipment in the country. 

At the same time he said that such issues were raised at a time when country was facing drought like situation with farmers committing suicide.

Sukhendu Sekhar Roy of Trinamool Congress said neither the previous government nor the present one took any action to find out the culprits or beneficiaries of Euro 30 million bribe and expressed apprehensions that whether the Congress and the BJP had joined hands on the issue.

Quoting former Defence Minister A K Antony that "yes corruption has taken place in helicopter deal, bribes have been taken..." he said the deal has maligned India's image but sadly no action was initiated to book the culprits.

Asking the government to unmask the identities of the beneficiaries, he said the accused in Italian court has named "AP" as one of the beneficiaries of bribe and demanded to know "whether government has taken any action to find out the identity of AP."

He also questioned that how Haschke became owner of an Indian company and what is the link behind.

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