The fate of the AgustaWestland case — the purchase of a dozen helicopters from an Italian company with British involvement for VVIP use under the last UPA government, the order for which was cancelled by that government itself in 2013 when a cloud of corruption came to hover over it following Italian media reports — has been thrown in doubt. An Italian court of appeals pronounced on Monday that there wasn’t sufficient proof of corruption.
The Milan appeals court acquitted the chief executive of the Italian state-controlled defence group earlier known as Finmeccanica and the head of its helicopter unit AgustaWestland. The court found no evidence of corruption, or passage of funds to Indian entities as regards kickback allegations, or the allegation of manipulation of the tender by Indian officials. Among the accused was the then Indian Air Force head, Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi. This was one of the important corruption cases against its predecessor that the Modi government had taken keen interest in, with the CBI doing the spadework on the Indian side. The case became a political hot potato when it opened in 2012.
A separate investigation into suspected corruption and money-laundering in the so-called AgustaWestland affair remains alive in India. After the Italian court’s dismissal of corruption charges, a CBI spokesman said in New Delhi: “They (Italians) have secured conviction earlier (at the trial stage) and have doors open for appeal in a higher court. CBI is investigating this case independently. We have a very strong case.” This, of course, will be put to the test in due course.
The record of the CBI’s thoroughness in investigations isn’t too inspiring. This was shown recently in the so-called 2G spectrum scandal under the UPA, where the CBI special judge threw out corruption charges against UPA-era high officials, including then communications minister A. Raja, and some businessmen, in December, causing considerable embarrassment to the Narendra government. The government is yet to file any appeal against the trial court’s verdict, though it was expected that it would in order to salvage its image.
The Bofors case of the Rajiv Gandhi era, and now the allegations in respect of the Westland deal, suggest that the CBI’s chargesheets have broadly been derivative in nature, relying greatly on the media reporting overseas without the CBI having autonomous process-related findings of its own that would stand up in a court of law. “Though vanquished”, the village school master, in Oliver Goldsmith’s famous poem, could “argue still”. The CBI must put its best foot forward to avoid that fate. Its action in the AgustaWestland case will be keenly watched.