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Why AgustaWestland is not a Bofors in the making

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Then it was Ottavio Quattrocchi, Now it is Christian James Michel.

Quattrocchi, was the middle man in the Bofors deal, which was the centre of  political controversy in India for two decades.  The Italian business man who had direct access to Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, died in 2013.

Michel, who is now at the centre of a controversy after the names of  several persons including Congress chief Sonia and other political leaders figured in the judgment of an Italian court. The court convicted AgustaWestland former chief Bruno Spagnolini and former CEO Giuseppe Orsi  for corruption in the sale of choppers to India. Apart from what is obvious, the sequence of events that unfolded when Bofors controversy erupted and the events taking shape now have several things in common.

But despite this commonality, is AgustaWestland deal another Bofors in the making?

When the world came to know that kickbacks were paid in the Bofors deal through Swedish Radio, it dented the image of  Rajiv Gandhi, who till then was considered as Mr.Clean. Rajiv  first categorically ruled out the involvement of any middle man in the deal. But weeks later, he stunned the Lok Sabha by saying  that neither he nor his family had received any considerations in the deal. This shift in position made him seem vulnerable and prompted opposition to cry foul. The developments eventually led to the down fall of Congress government.

Cut to AgustaWestland deal.

In 2013, the BJP sitting in the opposition alleged wrong doing in the VVIP chopper deal and likened it to Bofors. In 2013 India Today carried the statement of the then defence minister A K Antony confirming that “corruption has taken place in the helicopter deal and bribes are taken”. Citing breach of integrity clause, the deal was scrapped on 31 December 2013.

Though CBI is inquiring into the corruption case, even after Narendra Modi government came to power, no headway was made in the probe. When the entire issue was lying dormant, the Italian court judgement on 25 April mentioned among others the names of  Sonia, her political secretary Ahmed Patel.

And the BJP government, facing heat from opposition and civil society for stifling dissent, seized the opportunity. They decided to take Sonia’s name. Subramanian Swamy, who misses no opportunity to target the Gandhi family, was nominated as a Rajya Sabha member. BJP promptly put him on the task to take on Sonia.

But unlike Rajiv Gandhi, the barrage questions and media overdrive could not rattle Sonia when she spoke for the first time on Agusta controversy.  She tried and succeeded partially in taking the ball to BJP’s court by asking why they didn’t speed up the CBI inquiry.  Congress even questioned the participation of Agusta in the Make in India project. It is fact that they could not corroborate with evidence their claim that the UPA government had black listed the company.

Despite this the Congress, unlike during the Bofors controversy, has to a great extent succeeded in making the entire controversy look as manufactured for the benefit of BJP. But the Agusta agreement like the Bofors deal, once again brought to fore the unholy nexus between the middle man and politicians in arms deals . This definitely is a systemic problem, which requires structural policy changes to overcome which no one is interested to disturb.

Bofors controversy united the opposition in 1987. V P Singh, who was member of the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet took the mantle of an anti-corruption crusader and succeed in unseating the Congress, which had won over 400 seats in the previous national election.

BJP’s strategy among other things is to wreck the semblance of opposition unity by targeting Sonia on corruption charges. But the political atmosphere which has been evolving against the Sangh Parivar aggrandisement in various spheres of social political life, in all probability is not going to be punctured by the Agusta controversy.

After the impressive win in Bihar assembly election last year, the opposition is trying to put up a united fight in the states that are voting for a new governments this summer. This is making BJP jittery.  Despite all the noises they made in the parliament and  going by how the controversy is unfolding, it seem obvious that BJP has no power to unsettle the political realignment that is taking shape in various forms.
At the political level what one can decipher is that the present climate is completely at odds with what has happened in the late eighties during the Bofors controversy

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