The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy

Agusta, hawala & unsigned notes

Published May 11, 2016, 12:26 am IST
Updated May 11, 2016, 12:26 am IST
The impresion is that nothing happens in India without below-the-table payments.
A file photo of AgustaWestland (AW101) VVIP Airforce Helicopter. (Photo: PTI)
 A file photo of AgustaWestland (AW101) VVIP Airforce Helicopter. (Photo: PTI)

Anybody who sells any product to any organisation that purportedly has an “open and transparent” method of making a choice knows that the first thing to fix in order to get the business is to get specifications set to suit them exclusively. The AgustaWestland deal, like all other deals, be it for paper clips or nuclear power plants, almost certainly involved a set of fixes. But before we get to that some background will serve you well. It began with George Fernandes, the defence minister in NDA-1, making frequent visits to meet jawans manning the Saltoro ridgeline. This involved precarious flights on ageing IAF helicopters.
The Cheetahs were licence-built Aerospatiale Alouette II SA 315B Lama helicopters of late 1960s vintage. A Cheetah can carry up to five persons and has a range of about 300 nautical miles and a maximum speed of 103 knots.

It is powered by a single Turbomeca TM 333-2M2 engine, which has just about in it to make it to the Saltoro passes. Cheetahs still fly, but since their induction in 1972, 191 Chetaks and Cheetahs have crashed killing 294 personnel. With Mr Fernandes making frequent trips, the IAF with its keen instinct for acquisition saw an opportunity to augment its high altitude capable fleet of helicopters. So a request was made to the government  for a squadron of new VIP helicopters to make the Cheetah and the equally ageing Russian Mi-8 (Hip) helicopters redundant.

 

The IAF then preferred the Eurocopter EC225 Super Puma. This is a twin-engined, long-range passenger transport helicopter that can carry up to 24 passengers and three crew. It had a service height ceiling of 6,000 metre. It was the only helicopter of its kind with this ceiling, others being limited to 4,500 metre. This was when and where the fix was made. According to the ministry of defence, “On November 19, 2003, a meeting was called by then principal secretary (Brajesh Mishra, also NSA) on this subject. In the meeting, principal secretary observed that his main concern was that the framing of the mandatory requirements has led us effectively into a single vendor situation.

It was also noted that the PM and President have rarely made visits to places involving flying at an altitude beyond 4,500 metre. In the meeting it was decided to make the mandatory requirement for operational altitude 4,500 metre. The higher flying ceiling of 6,000 metre and a cabinet height of 1.8 metre could be made desirable operational requirements. It was observed that with these revisions, several helicopters which otherwise met all requirements, but had been rejected due to the altitude restriction, would come into reckoning.”

The all-powerful Mishra followed up this meeting with a letter on December 22, 2003, to the IAF chief (Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy) wherein he chastised, “That it was unfortunate that neither PMO nor SPG was consulted while framing these mandatory requirements.” He then ordered that the Air Chief and defence secretary “to jointly review the matter to draw up realistic mandatory requirements satisfying security requirements of VIPs and also set in motion a fast-track process for acquisition of the replacement helicopters”. This was done.

Now let’s meet the three Tyagi brothers, Sanjeev (Julie), Sandeep and Rajiv (Docsa), who also happen to be the cousins of Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi, who became Chief of Air Staff in 2005 and retired in 2007. It is important to remember Air Chief Marshal Tyagi a distinguished fighter pilot (call sign Bundle) was Air Chief neither when the specifications were changed in 2003 nor when the order was placed in 2009.

The Tyagi brothers became representatives of AgustaWestland, owned by the Italian government’s Finmeccanica (now renamed Leonardo group) in 1996. They were reasonably well known in Delhi circles. The youngest, Docsa (doctor sahib) was a doctor who found another practice more suited to him. He was at one time Amitabh Bachchan’s political aide.

After Bachchan quit politics, Docsa got into Vajpayee’s circle. Soon he was running errands for him in the Lucknow Lok Sabha constituency where he was reported to be the main liaison with the Muslim community. Mr Vajpayee’s “foster” son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya was the man who managed the affairs pertaining to Lucknow and, quite clearly, Docsa and he were closely associated. Mr Bhattacharya’s power and influence in the Vajpayee era is well known. Thanks to these connections the IAF’s preferred Eurocopter EC225 was no longer to be the sole option. Miffed, Eurocopter opted out.

This is how the AgustaWestland EH-101 and Sikorsky S-92 came into the reckoning. But it was a no-contest between them. For a start, the Agusta has three engines, one of which was an auxiliary to kick in more power in a drift down situation. It alone had a cabin height of 1.83 metre, something that the SPG insisted, as the guards could be standing upright with drawn weapons in the cabin.

Now as far as the corruption goes, the usual narrative is that nothing happens in India without below-the-table payments. But what is less known is that this is often the pretext for managements of foreign companies to make some big money. I have always held that Indians are the bottom feeders in the crooking pool.

The Hindujas, Nandas and Chowdhries usually make much more money for themselves and their foreign associates and fob off their Indian connections with small change. Their efforts fetched the three Tyagi brothers about Rs 11 crore, while a bigger payment track of over Rs 300 crore led to the Italian and Indian owners of two dummy companies in Tunisia and India, and to a flim-flam man called Christian Michel, the son of Wolfgang Michel who figured in the Mirage and Bofors deals. Does this lead to another son-in-law? Wait and watch.
Much is being made by the BJP about the Milan Court of Appeals judgment convicting Giuseppe Orsi and Bruno Spagnolini, the CEOs of Finmeccanica and AgustaWestland respectively, for “false accounting.” in which the judges referred to an unsigned note purportedly by Mr Christian Michel.

This refers to Sonia Gandhi and the then PM among others. But an unsigned note has no value. This was the basis for dismissing the charges against L.K. Advani and others in the Jain hawala case. The BJP is now conveniently forgetting this.

 

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