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Who is the Godfather of India's corruption?
Publication Date : 15-02-2013
The Bofors deal was a watershed in India’s fight against corruption. Bigger corruption might have occurred earlier. But for the first time the most powerful politician in the land was perceived to have deliberately covered up the crime. That corruption case was never satisfactorily cleared. But the efforts of the government to bend rules and cover up the truth became increasingly evident over the years.
Now there are prospects that what could not be accomplished with regard to the Bofors deal could be realized in the Augusta Westland helicopter deal. Events indicate that the possibility of a knockout punch to be delivered for corruption against the most powerful in the land cannot be dismissed. Why this might happen may be adduced from recapitulating events of the helicopter deal.
In the Bofors deal, the exposure came from Sweden which supplied the guns for which bribes were paid. In the Westland deal the exposure comes from Italy which supplied the helicopters. Two weeks from now Italy will hold a general election.
The Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti is under attack for not doing enough to eradicate Italy’s burgeoning corruption. There were corruption charges against Italy’s giant defence firm Finmeccanica which supplied the Augusta Westland choppers to India. Corruption allegations had erupted over a year ago.
The Italian government owns 30 per cent share of Finmeccanica. The Italian government ordered a probe. The Indian government stayed put for an entire year ostensibly waiting to get information from the Italians. Now matters have come to a head in Italy. Pre-poll compulsions have led the government to arrest the Finmeccanica CEO Giuseppe Orsi and put under house arrest three others including the head of the firm’s UK-based Augusta Westland unit. It has become impossible for the Indian government to ignore this development. Defence Minister AK Antony has ordered a Central Bureau of Investigaiton (CBI) inquiry.
During the probe Italian investigators had seized hours of taped conversation between one of the Italian middlemen, Guido Haschke, and his Indian counterparts. Swiss authorities had placed Haschke under arrest. In the taped conversation the names of several Indians who received bribes were mentioned. The Italians released the transcript of the taped conversation.
Now according to latest media reports, Italian investigators have alleged that former Indian Air Chief Air Marshal SP Tyagi had received bribes. Much earlier during the course of the probe in Italy the names of certain relatives of Air Marshal Tyagi had surfaced. Confronted with the information, the Air Marshal readily acknowledged the relationship but denied any business dealing with them.
Would a Service chief be directly involved in accepting a bribe or would he more likely compromise with higher political authority to clinch the deal? The technical requirements for the purchase of the helicopters had been changed to favour Westland for signing the contract. The cabinet committee headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had cleared the deal.
The deal had also been cleared by Defence Minister AK Antony and then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. Given these facts would a Service chief act on his own to clinch the deal after the technical requirements to purchase the helicopters had been suitably modified to allow the deal to go through? The question now is whether the political Godfather who sanctions corrupt deals will be unmasked. Two factors provide hope.
First, even though the CBI inquiry ordered by the government after the arrest of the Italian businessmen may be an attempt at a whitewash compelled by developments, the possibility of CBI sleuths doing an honest job cannot be precluded. Under pressure even a worm turns.
Sections of the Indian bureaucracy are getting fed up. Officials are displaying unprecedented independence. The recent suspension of a CBI prosecuting official for allegedly colluding with an accused of the 2G scam is symptomatic. Since the names of several Indian recipients of bribes in the Westland deal are known it should not be difficult for sleuths to grill them and unmask the political Godfather of corruption. The second factor is even more crucial.
Many months ago in the transcripts of the taped conversation related to kickbacks released by Italian investigators in which the names of Indian recipients were mentioned, one key name was withheld by the Italians. In one excerpt the name of the Indian mastermind who could clinch the deal was constantly repeated.
Oddly enough the Italian investigators in the transcripts referred to that mystery individual as “incomprehensible”. They put up the ridiculous claim that the name could not be deciphered! Thus in one exchange the Italian middleman Guido Haschke told his Indian counterpart: “They just need to say: I take orders “incomprehensible”. I take orders from “incomprehensible” in India.” That he claimed would swing the deal.
Referring to this transcript it was demanded in these columns on Oct 28, 2012: “The Indian government must demand a copy of the tape in order to ascertain the name of the mastermind whose word was law for the Italian businessmen and Indian officials with whom they dealt.
If by any chance the name reveals an individual whose exposure could threaten the survival of the United Progressive Alliance government the matter becomes one of grave national security. The Italians and the Swiss could in that event blackmail this government. Because this is a matter that could affect national security, the president can order the government to insist that the Italians hand over a copy of the tape.”
The government of course did not respond. It could have compelled the Italians to comply. The Westland contract includes “specific contractual provisions against bribery and the use of undue influence as well as an Integrity Pact”. This clause was quoted by the government to initiate the recent CBI probe. But why could not the government have threatened the Italian government earlier with a penalty clause to obtain the telltale tape which named the mastermind of the deal? There was enough incriminating evidence in the transcript for the government to have made the demand then.
Obviously the government was inhibited by the corruption mastermind. Now it remains to be seen whether the named mastermind will surface either from the actual tape or the transcript provided by Italy or from any Indian recipient during grilling by CBI sleuths. One can only keep one’s fingers crossed.
The writer is a veteran journalist and cartoonist.