An extremely poor record of taking defence deal probes to their logical conclusion awaits the AgustaWestland VVIP chopper procurement scam which has been entrusted to the CBI.
From 2004 onwards, the CBI had registered more than 40 cases related to the ministry of defence (MoD).
Of them, 22 were registered in connection with defence deals or leakage of defence information. Except in the case of Bangaru Laxman, not a single case has resulted in a conviction.
The rest of the cases are either pending in court or have not even reached court. The CBI investigated around 10 probes related to Operation West End, a sting carried out by journalists of Tehelka.
The sting allegedly blew the lid off the world of arms dealers involving senior bureaucrats and politicians. But the CBI rather than going after the dealers, targeted the Tehelka journalists.
The CBI didn’t even look for actionable information in the Tehelka cases.
It took a regime change at the centre, with the UPA coming to power in 2004, for the agency to initiate around 10 cases on the basis of Tehelka’s tapes.
Cases were registered against former BJP president Bangaru Laxman, Samta Party leader Jaya Jaitley and some defence officials.
Only the one involving Laxman resulted in conviction. “Rest of the Tehelka cases are in the advanced stage of trial in court. We may soon see decisions in some more cases in court,” said a CBI official.
But the CBI’s real failure lies in probes involving defence deals. The probe into allegations of bribery in procurement of Bofors guns is a classic example of how the CBI’s probe becomes a tool in the hands of the party in power.
As per the agency’s own admission, it was given 11 cases related to defence procurement but could file chargesheets in only three. Trial could be concluded in none.
Probes were closed in two for want of evidence and investigation is yet to conclude in six cases.
“There are many hurdles in concluding a probe in a defence deal. Most probes are on foreign shores and for all kinds of reasons our probe gets stalled,” said a CBI official.
To seek assistance from a foreign country, the CBI sends letter rogatory (a court approved request for assistance in probe) but often the execution of an LR is governed by India’s relations with the country concerned and the volume of trade that takes place with it. Some times LRs remain unexecuted as the company under the scanner brings business to the country.
Besides, when it comes to tracking bribe money through banking channels, the transactions are routed through many accounts abroad in the name of some companies and finally the accounts are closed to destroy the money trail and footprints of the perpetrators, say CBI investigators.
The agency also says that in most cases middlemen are NRIs with businesses abroad and this makes it difficult to separate the money they earned through legitimate ventures from bribes they accepted in swinging deals.
But what the agency will never admit officially is that it lacks the will to take on its political bosses, and this is the most important aspect in probing defence deals.
In the AgustaWestland deal the CBI has not been able to formally register a case. The agency says it was provided only press clippings by the MoD and they cannot go ahead on the basis of newspaper reports despite receiving information from the ministry that a cognisable offence may have taken place — which is information enough to register a case.
It will need another government, another day for the CBI to get its act together in the VVIP chopper deal.
By then the money trail will go cold, front companies of middlemen will vanish and the investigation may become more of a political statement than a real effort to unmask the beneficiaries.