Almost certainly, India's scam-riddled defence deal to purchase twelve helicopters from an Anglo-Italian firm for ferrying top politicians around the country will create a storm in the forthcoming budget session of parliament. The opposition, led by the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), must be flushed with excitement that it has come by one more scam to add to a procession of scams, including the 2G spectrum case and coalgate, during the Congress-led UPA (United Progressive Alliance) regime just in time for the 2014 polls.
The scandal pertains to a Rs.3,600-crore helicopter deal made between India and Agusta Westland, a subsidiary of the Finmeccanica aerospace group in which some 10 per cent was alleged to have been given as kickbacks to top Indians. Dubbed as Bofors-II by the BJP — in reference to a mega-kickbacks scandal over the purchase of Howitzer field guns for the Indian army from a Swedish firm that led to the rout of the Congress party in the elections back in the eighties — the opposition hopes to milk it to the maximum.
The BJP, which stops at nothing to corner the Congress, seems to have rumbled an Italian connection in both the deals. In the first deal, an arms agent who was alleged to have benefitted hugely from the deal happened to be an Italian by name Ottavio Quattrochi, who was close to Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
Much as the second case, the helicopter deal, is not even remotely connected to Sonia, the BJP seems to have found a Sonia connection as she is of Italian extraction. The saffron party perhaps calculates that Sonia's Italian origin and the multi-crore scams plus the rise in prices of essential commodities would constitute what could be called a witch's brew to wean millions of illiterate voters away from the Congress.
However, it remains to be seen if the latest scandal stemming from the mega-copter deal would hit the UPA government as hard as the coalgate or the 2G spectrum scam. In all likelihood, the copter scandal will fizzle out as Defence Minister A.K. Antony, known as the Mr. Clean of Indian politics, has moved like greased lightning not just to get to the truth but to avert any loss to the exchequer in the murky affair.
He reminds us that there is an "integrity clause" in the contract, signed in 2010, by which it is liable to be scrapped if bribery is detected in the process. Therefore, the chopper scam as such might not be an issue that could resonate with the voters.
Antony, criticised for his pussy-footing bent of mind, seems uncharacteristically in a tearing hurry to act on the issue. He has already moved to cancel the deal and may even blacklist the company. In fact, he is now accused of acting alone as he chose not to consult the Defence Acquisition Committee (DAC) or the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) or, for that matter, the prime minister before taking steps to scrap the deal.
With the budget session being so near, one might think that the hurried action by the defence minister is solely to do with the parliament session where he would be pilloried by the opposition parties. No doubt, there is a kernel of truth in this view as having to prepare to face the onslaught of the legislators is but par for the course.
But going a touch deeper, one could expect such seemingly over-the-top actions from Antony as he is a stickler for rules and would not engage in or tolerate corruption, come what may. Last year he blacklisted six foreign companies and two indigenous firms. According to a report, in his six years as defence minister, he has blacklisted more companies than all his predecessors combined. One analyst, in fact, said, not in jest, that if Antony goes on blacklisting arms firms, there wouldn't be many competent firms left to buy arms from for the Indian army.
In this context, what former Italian prime minister and business magnate said in the wake of the helicopter scam comes to mind. He said in a televised interview: "Bribes are a phenomenon that exists and it's useless to deny the existence of these necessary situations." According to him, a bribe is nothing but a commission that you pay someone in another country, which is necessary for doing business. It may be true in pretty much all countries, but the fact remains that it is a wrong way of conducting business.
That there was rampant corruption involved in the clinching of the copter deal is beyond doubt. But whether we will find out the bribe taker/takers and bring them to book remains to be seen. The Bofors gun scam and a succession of probes indicate that it is pretty hard to net the culprit.
One only hopes that the budget session will have enough time to discuss a series of key issues such as the Lok Pal bill, the ordinance on anti-rape law, the helicopter scam and, most importantly, the budget itself.
The writer is a freelance contributor based in India. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.