Probe heat in chopper scam

Manohar Parrikar
The government went on the offensive in the AgustaWestland controversy on Wednesday, with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar stating in Parliament that an inquiry into it would focus on those an Italian court judgment named.

In the Rajya Sabha, the Congress defended its president, Sonia Gandhi, her political secretary, Ahmed Patel, and other leaders, who have been reportedly named in the scam around the acquisition of the choppers.

The Congress claimed the government was spreading canards against its leaders to cover up its own "misgovernance". The government turned down the Opposition demand for a Supreme Court-monitored probe. In protest, the Congress and the Janata Dal (United) staged a walkout.

Parrikar said, the "inquiry will focus on roles of those named in the judgment of the Italian court. The government will leave no stone unturned in bringing to justice those involved in the scam." He added, "It appears an 'invisible hand' was guiding the action or inaction of the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) and the Enforcement Directorate."

In response, A K Antony, who was the defence minister in the preceding United Progressive Alliance government, said: "If you have all the evidence, take action but don't threaten us, don't blackmail us."

A five-hour discussion in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday had both the government and the Opposition trading barbs. An initial victory seemed to have been scored by the Congress-led Opposition, which outnumbered the Treasury benches and refused to let Defence Minister Parrikar initiate the discussion.

Congress' Abhishek Manu Singhvi directly addressed the issue of "CP, (Congress president Sonia Gandhi) V-P (Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi) and AP, (Sonia's political secretary Ahmed Patel)" - the three initials that had led to much heat and chaos in the House. He made detailed references to the Italian court's judgment and stated that the court had not indicted, or found any evidence against any of the Congress leaders. Singhvi cited the Jain Hawala judgment ruling, argued by the Arun Jaitley (now Union finance minister) to bolster his argument that initials have no evidence in a legal case. "LKA" (Bharatiya Janata Party leader Lal Krishna Advani) had been acquitted of all charges he reminded members.

Targetting the Congress, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, who replied to the discussion, said, "It appears an 'invisible hand' was guiding the action or inaction of CBI and ED."

He accused the Congress-led UPA of delaying the probe even after the scam had broken out. "The case was handed over to CBI only after (Finmeccanica's former chief Giuseppe) Orsi was arrested."

He accused the UPA of deliberately having a single vendor Agusta Westland in violation of all norms; facts that had been repeatedly highlighted by the CAG in its report,he said quoting extensively from the report. Parrikar claimed the helicopters were bought at inflated prices and no realistic basis for price negotiations was provided.

The Treasury benches relied on the firepower of Subramanian Swamy, to the extent that the BJP withdrew all its speakers in order to give Swamy more time.

Swamy accused the Congress of lying, "terminological exactitude" he said, stating that they were the ones who had changed the technical specifications of the helicopters to favour the single vendor Agusta Westland. This led to Congressmen vociferously denying his claim and outshouting him. Swamy then said, "In September 2008, contract negotiations committee arbitrarily fixed Rs 4,877.5 crore as the deal which was 6 times more."

Swamy, who till now had been repeatedly naming Sonia Gandhi in the House leading to derailment of business all through this session, on Wednesday made a strong lunge stating those named in a note written by one of the alleged middleman should be interrogated by the CBI and if necessary it "should be custodial interrogation."

Swamy attempted to put the Congress leadership including its president Sonia Gandhi, Ahmed Patel and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the mat by alluding to purported references in the judgment but the deputy chairperson asked Swamy to authenticate every document that he was citing as evidence.

The debate had its moments of high drama when Ahmed Patel challenged Swamy to prove his claims saying he would resign not just from the Rajya Sabha but from political life as well.

Refuting the BJP claim former defence minister A K Antony stated the decision to change the flying altitude from 6,000 metres to 4,500 metres was taken by then PMO and NDA government of Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2003. "The decision to change height was taken by the PMO. The major decision was taken by your government in 2003. I am not casting any aspersions, just stating facts."

Antony said that it was the UPA which had acted on the "corrupt company" and cracked down on it, the then government, had paid Rs 1,586 crore but recovered Rs 2,062 crore from AgustaWestland.

He added three helicopters worth Rs 900 crore were also impounded.

Addressing the government directly, Antony said, "It is proved beyond doubt there was corruption in chopper deal; act now."

The Congress got robust support from several Opposition parties; senior JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav demanded to know what was the progress in the investigation in these past two years. "Were you waiting for the Italian court's judgment, in order to act?"

BSP chief Mayawati, CPM's Tapan Sen, CPI's D Raja, and NCP's Majid Memon, all demanded a Supreme Court-monitored CBI probe to ensure impartial investigation.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venkaiah Naidu, however, rejected the demand citing that it was the Congress which had started the CBI probe so why should the norms be changed at this stage.

Trinamool Congress' Sukhendu Sekhar Roy hit out both at the government and the Congress, and demanded to know why for 14 months then Defence Minister Antony did not take any action against anyone? Turning the guns on the BJP, Roy also questioned the inordinate delay by the government for these past two years.

The Lok Sabha is also likely to take up the issue soon.

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