The 12 AgustaWestland helicopters ordered for the Air Force for VVIP duties were meant for use by the Special Protection Group (SPG) for the transport of SPG protectees and also for the transport of other VVIPs not entitled to SPG protection. While the Air Force was responsible for the procurement of the best copters available and for their maintenance and for providing the crew for manning them, the SPG was responsible for indicating to the Air Force before the procurement the minimum safety and comfort requirements that must be met by the copters.
2. All that the late Shri Brajesh Mishra, the then National Security Adviser, reportedly did in 2003 was to point out in file that the inputs from the SPG had not been adequately reflected in working out the minimum requirements that the copters should meet. He did the right thing in doing so and it would be absurd on the part of anyone to contend that his action contributed the first step in the chain of wrong-doing relating to the final procurement that came about in 2010.
3.The wrong-doing came about during the subsequent action on the contract for finalizing the financial and other details. It would seem that someone in India as well as abroad claimed credit for bringing about the changes in the minimum requirements consequent upon the action of Shri Mishra and made illegal financial gains.
4.The copter scam brings to mind the Bofors scam of the 1980s when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister. When the first details of the Bofors scam emerged in 1987,it became apparent that a small group of persons close to Rajiv Gandhi in India and Europe had financially benefitted from the contract.
5.Instead of ascertaining the truth, the Government of Rajiv Gandhi entered into a huge charade to prevent the truth from coming out. While making a huge pretense of having the matter investigated through the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and enquired into by a Joint Parliamentary Committee, the Government actually tried to have the illegalities covered up.
6.The truth of the illegal dealings ultimately emerged despite the cover-up exercise mounted by the Government due to some independent enquiries made by some brilliant journalists of the print media, with “The Hindu” being in the forefront. Despite the brilliant investigative reporting by the print media, the wrong-doers in India and Europe managed to escape prosecution due to the cover-up by the Government and its complicity in protecting the wrong-doers.
7. The CBI under Rajiv Gandhi came in for criticism for acting as a cover-up and not an investigating agency. Under Rajiv Gandhi, the CBI’s reputation hit the mud. It let itself be used by the Government as a willing tool for ensuring the cover-up.
8. It needs to be underlined that the huge web of corruption surrounding the Bofors contract did not vitiate the original decision of the Army to go for the Bofors, which played an important role in defeating the Pakistani intruders during the Kargil conflict of 1999.
9. It is important to keep this in mind because there have been demands for the cancellation of the contract for the delivery of the Westland copters. We should take a professional and not a self-righteous decision in the matter based on our evaluation of the performance of the three copters already delivered and their suitability for VVIP duties. We have already delayed by more than a decade the procurement process and a further delay as a result of any cancellation may not be advisable.
10. At the same time, public and political opinion should ensure that a Bofors-like cover-up is not repeated by using the CBI as a tool for a diversionary exercise to prevent the truth from coming out. India Against Corruption of Anna Hazare and the Aam Admi Party of Arvind Kejriwal as well as our media should play an active role in this matter.
11.One cannot expect a thorough-going investigation by the CBI so long as it acts under the supervision of the Government in the investigation. The CBI team investigating the copter scam should be placed under the day-to-day supervision of a special team of legal luminaries to be constituted by the Supreme Court. In the Bofors scam, the CBI team was placed under the supervision of the JPC which was dominated by the Congress and it saw to it that the CBI did not go after the truth.
12. There are three sets of wrong-doers in the copter scam. The first are the Indian nationals involved. The names of some close relatives of a former Air Force Chief have come up in this connection. Possibly, there are others. In the Bofors scam, the Indians in India and the diaspora managed to escape prosecution due to the protection extended to them by the then Government. We should see that this does not happen now.
13. The other two sets are intermediaries in Europe who played a role in the scam and senior officials of the Italian mother company (Finmecannica). The success of the CBI in establishing the truth about their role would depend on the co-operation extended by the Italian, Swiss and other European Governments. Here, the pressure of our diplomacy would be important.
14. In the Bofors scam, the Swiss and Swedish authorities were willing to co-operate, but it was the Rajiv Gandhi Government which avoided taking their co-operation lest the truth come out. Public and political opinion should see that this charade is not repeated by the present Government. (16-2-13)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. Twitter:@SORBONNE75 )