India for all of its independent years has been mostly non-self-reliant for its defence and many civilian hardware needs. It has done business with many seller nations — old steady-mate Russia, the jealous USA, which always tried to pawn off the second-best, and European nations. Strangely, it’s the deals with the nations on the east side of the Atlantic which have ended up generating more stink and impacting politics in India.
The gun that started the great political mud-fight: Bofors. (Photo: Reuters/File)
Voters preparing for 2019 had started picking their ears up to the ugly mud-slinging over the Rafale deal, involving the Congress chant, “Chowkidar chor hai” against PM Modi. The BJP’s defence — “Ma-beta bail par hain” — didn’t have the crunchy bite of a scam that involves a foreign nation.
The Congress wanted to pin Modi to Rafale — but it also wanted to avenge Bofors. The UAE has now sent Christian Michel, the alleged middle-man in the Agusta chopper deal, to Modi and made it a contest — Congress’ Rafale vs BJP’s Augusta Westland.
Finally, in custody. But will the bird sing? (Photo: Twitter)
History being repeated
It’s not the first time in India’s history that the political narrative has the privilege of more than one such imported spoiler clashing, one in the hands of the Opposition, the other with the ruling party.
In the late 1980s, when VP Singh, Rajiv Gandhi's one-time finance minister, was busy staging a rebellion against his chief over Bofors, the St Kitts scandal came with an electrifying effect of a lightning bolt. The charges were that Ajeya Singh, the 33-year-old son of VP Singh, held a foreign account in a Caribbean tax haven that went by the unlikely name of St Kitts.
VP Singh raised Bofors. He was immediately hit by St Kitts. (Photo: PTI/file)
And the beneficiary of the $21 million (Rs 35 crore) account was alleged to be VP Singh himself. The scandal threatened to scorch Singh’s political career on the eve of his greatest test — the General Elections.
Then-minister of state for information and broadcasting KK Tewary reportedly said, 'VP Singh collected this money from private and public sector companies in London while he was finance minister. He collected the bribe and the money was deposited in the bank.'
Then, as suddenly as it had arrived, the scandal vanished — like a lightning bolt that wasn’t followed by thunder.
St. Kitts was Congress’ counter to Bofors. History is now repeating itself.
Then, it was a challenger vs the Congress’ first family. This time too, the ingredients are similar.
History repeats itself. It’s Modi vs the Gandhis on kickback-corruption charges. (Photos: PTI)
Christen Michel landed in Delhi in the dying moments of Tuesday, December 4. And before Wednesday could strike, noon politics over him bloomed. BJP President Amit Shah, when asked about the Opposition’s claim that the BJP was trying to use Michel’s extradition to take the limelight away from other issues, said, 'The Opposition has no other issue. Does the Opposition want to save him? Shouldn’t we be catching the middleman involved in the scam? Is it not important?'
But that was the appetiser.
He grabbed the newfound ammunition with glee to fire at the Congress. At Pali, he said, “The government has brought the VVIP chopper deal middleman and secret-keeper all the way from Dubai. He had served the politicians and will now disclose all the secrets. Who knows what will be revealed now.”
At Dausa, Modi said, “Hum sarkar mein aane ke baad us ghotale ki jaanch ki aur usme se ek raazdaar hamare haath lag gaya. Aaj akhbaro mein padha hoga Bharat sarkar us raazdaar ko Dubai se le aayi hai. Razdar naamdaar ke doston ko katka deta tha. Ab yeh raazdaar raaz kholega toh pata nahi baat kitni door tak jayegi." (We investigated the scam after coming to power and caught one of the accused. Who used to give cuts to the friends of “naamdar”. You must have read in the papers that the government got him extradited from Dubai. Who knows what secrets will tumble out once he starts talking?)
Two governments will keenly watch Michel’s coming days in India — the UAE which extradited him as per a court order, and the UK, Michel’s homeland. In an interview to India Today barely a few hours before he took off from the UAE, Michel said he has intimated his country of birth. He reiterated, 'No bribes were paid. No connect with the Gandhi family or Congress leaders.'
But that didn’t stop politics to germinate on his arrival.
Which way will the chopper scam fly?
Michel is not expected to wilt suddenly — but after arriving in India, compared to Dubai, the pressure on him in CBI custody may be immense.
The CBI plans to confront him with evidence it has collected. To ascertain whether the deal involved kickbacks, who was involved in swinging the deal for Agusta, who were the beneficiaries and the money trail, the CBI may create face-to-face confrontations with other accused and players involved in the deal. This will test Michel.
But Wednesday’s events are an indicator that irrespective of the direction the probe takes, politics may be a winner.
The PM’s address at a public meeting in Dausa was being beamed live by most news channels. The moment he started speaking on Agusta, a CBI team moved to produce Michel at the Patiala court. It may be naive to declare this as mere coincidence. It made interesting watching on television screens — one frame showcased the PM at an election rally, the other, Michel in a car flanked by CBI officials, then inside the court.
Michel is now a trophy catch. In a politically surcharged atmosphere, the Opposition is delivering body blows to the government over high-profile frauds, fraudsters fleeing the country and the difficulties probe agencies are facing in ensuring their ‘ghar wapsi’.
The government now has Michel to parade to counter the Opposition’s narrative.
The probe to uncover what Michel knows offers a political opportunity. The CBI will try to take the probe to the ‘next level’. Till now, the investigation involved ex-IAF officers and domestic middlemen. Now, the CBI can hunt for “bigger fish” involved in the scam. Michel is expected to be confronted with evidence. If there are handwritten sheets of paper with notings like “AP” & “FAM”, the government may like the scam to get a Congress connect.
If Michel crumbles and admits that there were bribes and alleges that Congressmen were beneficiaries, it will become a pre-2019 poll bonanza for Delhi’s ruling party. But that may take time. Irrespective of the final outcome, in the coming days, crafted sightings of Michel, subtle leaks on what he is revealing and who all he is being confronted with are expected to become regular features.
The other ‘benefit’ for the BJP will unfold during the winter session of Parliament.
The Congress is set to raise the demand for a joint parliamentary committee probe in the Rafale deal — AgustaWestland and Michel will provide the BJP benches king power to counter it.
This means the Agusta case will remain on slow simmer. The BJP’s calculation is that now the Rafale scam is a charge while AgustaWestland kickbacks have a face.
Meanwhile, the Congress, right since Michel’s arrival, has floundered aimlessly.
It reacted by terming Michel’s extradition as “insignificant” and a “motivated” move to launch a vendetta by the BJP. One spokesperson went on to say that “there were no bribes”. Other differed by saying that “the UPA government blacklisted AgustaWestland. The BJP revoked the blacklisting. All the money paid came back.”
The knee-jerk reaction flies against what the UPA defence minister, AK Antony, a veteran Congressman with a clean image, had said on March 25 in 2015. Addressing the media after a reception at INS Sudarshani at the Naval Headquarters, Kochi, Antony had stated, “I have a feeling that somebody has taken money in the helicopter deal. CBI investigations in the issue are in a crucial stage now and I don’t want to comment more on it. We will not show mercy to anybody who has taken money, however big he is.”
AK Antony himself had pointed out anomalies in the Agusta deal. (Photo: PTI/file)
Antony may have admitted there were bribes — but what's been missing is a clear visible link to the electorate’s eye, connecting any bribes to the Congress, especially the party’s first family. That’s why, at the Dausa rally, the PM indulged in nudge-nudge insinuations on Michel. He said, "Michel used to serve naamdar ke dost” — friends of Rahul Gandhi.
The Congress faltered yet again.
Aljo K Joseph, a lawyer by profession and head of the Indian Youth Congress’ legal aid cell, was hired by Michel as his counsel. Joseph on the same day was seen at the CBI HQ and the AICC HQ in Delhi. When pictures of Joseph with Congress big guns like Ahmed Patel, Kamal Nath and Kapil Sibal emerged along with a letter appointing him as in-charge of IYC’s insignificant cell, the Congress in a rather 'mindless' move, sacked him. Next, Joseph was also removed from the Supreme Court unit of the AICC legal cell.
Once a Congressman, now lawyer for Christen Michel. (Photo: ANI)
Joseph as a lawyer has a right to take up Michel’s case. Post-newsbreak, he had said that 'it was a personal decision as an individual'. But by sacking him, the Congress, in an attempt to sever what it perceived as an emerging umbilical cord between Michel and itself, ended up serving a virtual 'admission of guilt' instead.
The BJP fielded its spokesman Sambit Patra on Thursday to heap more misery onto the Congress by charging that two more lawyers with a Congress connect were part of Michel’s legal team. He said, 'Aljo K Joseph was removed by the Congress. But there are two others assisting him. One Vishnu Shankar (son of Congress leader Chithara Madhu) And Sriram Parakkat, a NSUI worker associated with senior Congress legal eagles. And the idea is that the three meet Michel in custody twice a day.'
Knowing that an opportunity is available, he added, 'Isn’t this the extended hand of 10 Janpath (official resident of UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi) to help Michel? It’s a message to all agencies that Congress stands rock solid behind Michel — Congress ka haath, Michel ke saath'.
The BJP backroom spin doctors are said to be working on a strategy to paint the presence of 'Congressmen assisting Michel' as the grand old party’s attempt to keep a check on what the alleged middleman says, and use them as couriers carrying messages on what the party wants him to say.
I was a young reporter when the Bofors scam blew up and helped VP Singh lead a motley fragile coalition to power, starting the Bofors probe in earnest exactly 10 years before the 155 mm howitzer proved its worth in the Kargil war.
The dust raised then hasn’t settled till now.
Corruption is not a lone catalyst in India’s complex electoral arena. If a government has faltered on several fronts, it becomes the ‘plus’ factor. In 2014, the UPA had many things working against it. The angry public bought the corruption charge. In 1989-90, the then-prime minister was standing on a mess created by the Shah Bano case and the Ramjanmabhoomi misadventures. The Bofors scam charge found fertile ground.
The Congress has planted the seed of a Rafale scam now. It will grow only if the public disenchantment with the PM and his government grows.
The BJP claims Rafale is not an issue among the masses. By that logic, it can be argued if a ‘jet fighter deal’ will not become a poll issue, can a ‘chopper purchase deal’ gain traction?
As the winds blow, how much dust will AgustaWestland raise on the political landscape? (Photo: PTI/file)
But political parties don’t raise every issue to instantly sway the masses. They use them to add layers to a narrative.
Through Rafale, the Congress wants to build a template that the Modi government, apart from failing to keep promises, is corrupt. Through Agusta — and Christen Michel — the BJP wants to discredit the emerging challenger, Congress president Rahul Gandhi.
For those who wish to get a peep into the past to learn how scam charges and probes never earn a closure, here is a link of a story in India Today magazine (January 31, 1990) on the Bofors scandal.
It reports the fury of the then-VP Singh government and its promise to unmask the scam operators and the beneficiaries.
Did that happen?
Similarly, will the government deliver on the threat to dig and unravel the truth of the AgustaWestland scam?
I end with what Mirza Ghalib had said:
Khudā ke vāste zāhid uThā parda na kaabe kā
kahīñ aisā na ho yaañ bhī vahī kāfir-sanam nikle
In simple words, it means, ‘Don’t lift the curtain, it may reveal yet another lover who betrayed’.