A curious fact which seemed to have escaped attention in the on-going slugfest over the defence kickbacks scam is the caveat at the very beginning of the Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) report. The CAG began its report on the AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter scam with a seemingly innocuous disclaimer: “The audit is neither equipped nor empowered to investigate from a criminal or forensic point of view.”
The role and functions of the CAG are well-known. Of course, it has no tools of its own to undertake investigation or forensic examination of official records. That is the job of governmental agencies directly under the control of the political executive. CAG can only vet the records and make informed comments after perusing official files. Why, then, did it state the obvious unless it suspected something worse?
Was the disclaimer meant to undermine the CAG report which had found gross irregularities in the Rs 3,600-crore purchase order for 12 VVIP choppers? Significantly, the chopper report was finalised when Vinod Rai, who is now principal secretary to prime minister Modi, was the CAG.
The current CAG Shashi Kant Sharma was the director-general (acquisitions) in the defence ministry when the infamous Agusta chopper deal was signed. He would obviously be interested in keeping a tight lid on the scam.
But it was presented to Parliament when Shashi Kant Sharma (pictured top left) had taken over from Rai as CAG. Sharma’s anxiety to play down or even suppress any suggestion of wrong-doing would be natural. For, he was the director-general (acquisitions) in the defence ministry when the deal was signed. He would be obviously interested in keeping a tight lid on the scam. And soon after his appointment as defence secretary he did take steps to cover-up.
Though he could not alter the contents of the report, he could still insert the cautionary disclaimer to dilute its reliability. Thus, the objections raised at the time of Sharma’s appointment as CAG about the possible conflict of interest were indeed well-founded. For, as DG (acquisitions) he had approved a number of such small and big deals. As CAG he could not be expected to be impartial while auditing the very same deals. Since Sharma had spent long years in senior positions in the defence ministry, eventually becoming defence secretary, his appointment as CAG was designedly mala fide.
Regardless of the unusual CAG disclaimer, the political class is guilty of paying scant heed to the kickbacks scam until the Italian court imprisoned key officials involved in bribe-giving. The CAG report does mention unusual twists and turns in the negotiating process leading up to the final order to the
Anglo-Italian company. Then Air Chief SP Tyagi and his cousins are already under intensive interrogation by the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate.
But an equally crucial role in altering the parameters so that AgustaWestland alone got the order was played by then Special Protection Group (SPG) chief B V Wanchoo (picture top right). A long-time Gandhi family loyalist, he was the longest serving SPG chief, getting multiple extensions after his first two-year term ended in 2006. In fact, he retired from the SPG itself in late 2011 after the helicopter deal was clinched by AgustaWestland.
If that is not suspicious enough, the fact that he spent over a fortnight in Italy as the guest of AgustaWestland must seem certainly puzzling. He was subsequently rewarded with the post of Goa's Governor.
As SPG chief, Wanchoo played a crucial role in changing the original requirement regarding cabin height of the choppers. Making it absolutely essential that the cabin height be 1.8 meters, as against the earlier stipulation of 1.4 meters, tilted the scales in favour of AgustaWestland. Given the average height of Indians--the global standard for choppers, in fact, is 1.4 meters--Wanchoo’s insistence on 1.8 could be deemed collusive. He himself barely stands at 1.4 meters in his socks.
Meanwhile, Shashi Kant Sharma is under pressure to resign as the CAG. It is only a matter of time before the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate summon him. It would bring disrepute to the office of the CAG if the incumbent head himself is under a cloud. Also, he ought to keep in mind that Wanchoo felt obliged to resign as Goa Governor once the CBI called him for interrogation. Sharma should spare constitutional office of CAG the pelting it's receiving, and put in his papers before he gets the inevitable call from the CBI and the ED.
Abortive bid to gain entry into BJP camp
A bit more on the chopper scam. It seems the Tyagi brothers, cousins of the scam-tainted former Air Force chief SP Tyagi, have been in the dalali business for long. The AgustaWestland deal was certainly not their first. One of the brothers, the bearded Rajiv Tyagi, who till the scam hit headlines had always dressed in white dhoti-kurta, could be seen making the rounds of important politicians'offices. In the late 90s, sensing the decline of the Congress, he tried to switch sides, seeking an entry into the court of senior BJP leaders.
In the 1996 Lok Sabha election, he parked himself in Lucknow, ostensibly campaigning for Atal Behari Vajpayee, but actually trying to gain access to the BJP leader. However, Tyagi found himself made a persona non grata once the Vajpayee PMO realized what his real vocation was. Aside from that short stint wooing the BJP leadership, Rajiv has always found doing business with Congress leaders the most profitable. That is, till the Italians exposed the dubious role of the Tyagi brothers.
The Rajya Sabha debate on the helicopter scam revealed that defence minister Manohar Parrikar is not among the most articulate members on the ruling party benches. His bland reading of a long statement left everyone unimpressed, even though he had a strong case to argue. Worse, he could have avoided that Akbar-Birbal joke about the `bamboo’ getting short or long, causing a woman Congress MP from Andhra to comment innocently that his own bamboo seemed to have got shorter. The joke was about a gold spoon gone missing from Akbar’s kitchen and the emperor tasking Birbal to find the thief. Birbal gave the suspects a bamboo each, warning that everyone’s except the thief’s bamboo would get shorter by four inches. As ordered, everyone returned the bamboo unchanged but not the thief. He had cut it by four inches. It was a poor analogy to drive the point that the bribe-takers had left their traces all over in the official records.
But the Congress members too failed to see the irony in demanding that Parrikar speak extempore, even when ministers are permitted under rules to read out from written statements, however long. Given that Sonia Gandhi hardly says two sentences in the Lok Sabha without reading from a script, her partymen's tirade against Parrikar for using a prepared text is puzzling. Even while writing a message in a condolence book, Sonia Gandhi needs a chit in hand.
Given Sonia Gandhi hardly says two sentences in the Lok Sabha without reading from a script, her partymen's tirade against Parrikar for using a prepared text is puzzling. Even while writing a message in a condolence book, Sonia Gandhi needs a chit in hand.
Again, of all the people Abhishek Manu Singhvi defending alleged bribe-takers, insisting that `we are all respectable members’ sounded rather ironical, especially coming from Singhvi.
Virendra Kapoor is a Delhi-based journalist. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of Asianet Newsable
Last Updated 31, Mar 2018, 6:55 PM IST