New Delhi: Facing relentless opposition fire over demonetisation, top guns of the Modi government on Thursday latched on to news reports about alleged kickbacks in the AgustaWestland chopper deal under the erstwhile UPA rule, demanding that a debate on it should take precedence over all other discussions.
The main opposition party, Congress, termed the demand as a "diversionary" tactic to avoid a Parliamentary debate on the note ban.
As Parliament headed for a near-complete washout of the Winter Session over demonetisation logjam, with just a day left for it to conclude, senior Ministers in the Modi government pounced on media reports to target Congress president Sonia Gandhi over the alleged kickbacks in the VVIP chopper deal, insisting that she respond to the charges.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ananth Kumar demanded that Sonia speak on the issue, while Information and Broadcasting Minister M Venkaiah Naidu said the Congress should face the AgustaWestland heat "first" before Parliament discussed any other issue.
Naidu demanded that Parliament discuss the chopper scam as many names had cropped up in the "diary" of alleged middleman Christian Michel, which was published in a section of the media.
"I would like Parliament to discuss about the serious diary bomb which has been published in newspapers today. Its a very serious issue because it is a matter which was placed before the Italian court and then names of certain people have also been given in alphabets of course.
"The report says six million euros (have been paid) to Air Force officers, 8.4 million to bureaucrats and 16 million to politicians. We must try to reach the bottom of the truth, and as the House is in session, we must discuss this in the House because this is the biggest scam in the recent years that too pertaining to defence deals that happened during the UPA regime," Naidu said.
Alleging that the erstwhile UPA government "successfully prevented" the truth from coming out, Naidu said, "Now that there is a change of government, the inquiry has to be expedited and then nation also has to be told who is behind all this."
"My advice to them is, first face this Agusta heat, respond to these allegations and then discuss other issues also. The government has no problem," he said.
Senior Congress leader A K Antony sprang to Sonia's defence, saying she had no role in the procurement of the helicopters and that BJP will make a "laughing stock" of itself if it dragged her into the controversy.
He also said that the way BJP leaders were claiming that CBI "will nail the culprits in two months" was not good for the agency investigating the AgustaWestland chopper deal. "CBI is working under the directions of BJP, is that what they (BJP members) are attributing. I feel sorry. Dont tarnish the image of CBI like that," the former Defence Minister said.
"Soniaji has no role. There is no connection with Soniaji. Helicopters are meant for the use of President, Vice President and the Prime Minister. Soniaji has nothing to do with that. In the Italian court itself it was mentioned," he told reporters.
Antony said Sonia had no connection with the decision, because the driving force behind the procurement was the Indian Air Force.
"They were telling that because the old Russian-made helicopter is not safe for VVIP travel. They wanted to change it. So 1999 onwards this procurement was there," he said.
He claimed that the utterances of BJP members showed that CBI is "under their thumb".
"What CBI is going to do within two months if BJP is saying. It is too much. That is, they are attributing that CBI is under their thumb, that is not good," he said.
With a united opposition unsparing in its attack on the government, Ananth Kumar said the government was ready to discuss demonetisation but the opposition should allow a debate on the chopper deal.
"We also want a discussion on the alleged currency management (note jugad) at the Congress headquarters. We also want a discussion on AgustaWestland kickbacks. The name of UPA government's first family was also mentioned by Christian Michel. There should be discussion on this in the House," he said.
"We are ready for debate on demonetisation in both Houses since day one. We were ready yesterday and we are ready today as well. But since the first day Rahul Gandhi, Congress and other opposition parties have been running away from debate," Kumar told reporters outside Parliament.
Congress leader in the Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge said the government was "running away" from discussion on demonetisation and raking up issues like AgustaWestland to divert the attention from note ban.
"They (members of Treasury benches) are bringing big, big posters of AgustaWestland in the House. What is this? This is for diverting the issue of demonetisation. They are trying one or the other excuse for adjourning the House," he said.
Kharge said AgustaWestland issue has "already been discussed before two sessions" and "all the documents were presented" at that time.
"AgustaWestland has been discussed but demonetisation not. Their intention is to divert. Hit and run (policy)...If you want to discuss now, then bring it under different rule. We are ready for discussion. Why do you want to divert the issue of demonetisation?" Kharge asked....