19 February 2013. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister is on a visit to India to promote a “special partnership” between the UK and India. In a surprise move Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, voiced serious concerns over corruption allegations relating to the sale of Westland helicopters to Indian air force, to David Cameron today, a joint press conference in New Delhi. Singh’s decision to raise the issue at this crucial meeting with Cameron casts a shadow over the future of business relations between the two countries.
According to BBC News David Cameron backed UK helicopter firm AgustaWestland despite the allegations. “What I am saying to people here is that AgustaWestland is an excellent company, with highly skilled workers who make brilliant helicopters,” said Cameron. Cameron promised to provide any information requested by the Indian authorities, but stressed that the case was for Italian investigators to probe, as AgustaWestland is owned by Italian firm Finmeccanica.
Italian government owns 30% shares in Finmeccanica. India suspended payments under the £480 million contract for the supply of 12 VVIP helicopters following the arrest last week of Finmeccanica chairman and chief executive Giuseppe Orsi and AgustaWestland chief executive Bruno Spagnolini on corruption and tax fraud charges. The helicopters were for the use of the President, Prime Minister and other top government functionaries in India. La Repubblica reported that a senior company official, Lorenzo Borgogni, has told prosecutors that slush funds were generated after a “sudden” escalation of price by 10 million euros in 2010. Now according to 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. Air Marshal has denied any business dealings with Finmeccanica.
The technical requirements for the purchase of the helicopters were 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. It is very unlikely that a Service chief would attempt to clinch the deal after all these approvals. It is widely suspected that a political figure must be behind the scandal. Will it ever come to light? Another subsidiary of Finmeccanica, Selex Sistemi Integrati, which is also under investigation, recently won a 10 million-euro contract to supply radars and other equipment for India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier under construction in Kochi.
It is worth noting that in the Bofors case, in the eighties, the trail led the investigators to the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. But he remained comfortably beyond the grasp of the CBI sleuths, despite the availability of solid evidence incriminating him. Nothing was done because of the latent support of the Indian establishment.
The presence of a godfather is prominently given away by the fact that when the transcripts of tapes relating to the Indian beneficiaries of the kickbacks were handed to the Indian authorities by their Italian counterparts, the references to a key name was conspicuously withheld. It is not too hard to ascertain that this person, who held the power to make or break a deal, could only have belonged to a figure at the highest rungs of the political power in India.