Italy may have blown open Choppergate just last week but it is now evident that the Indian government smelt a rat around the deal months ago, culminating in South Block summoning the Italian ambassador as early as November last year.
A photo of AgustaWestland AW101 chopper, configured to meet diverse roles for pre-dominantly Maritime and Utility tasks. Photo: agustawestland.com
Government sources said that India had shot off letters to Italian authorities at least six times last year in a desperate bid to collate information about the Rs. 3,760-crore deal for 12 VVIP choppers. The communication between the two governments intensified as red flags popped up from the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and income-tax authorities.
In the evening on February 15, secretary (West) in the ministry of external affairs (MEA), Sudhir Vyas, once again summoned Italian ambassador Giacomo Sanfelice, days after Giuseppe Orsi, the chief executive of Finmeccanica, was arrested on allegations of bribery to secure the contract.
Vyas told the envoy that the arrests in Italy had lent urgency to the Indian demand that the Italians share details of the probe, and that the matter was of “immense gravity” for the Indian government. The diplomat was also urged to speed up visas for Indian officials who left for Italy on Monday night.
Sanfelice, it is learnt, stuck to his government’s stand that it could not share information before the culmination of investigative and judicial processes.
Sources said that the director, income tax (investigations) had sought information about the alleged middlemen in the deal from the defence ministry in November. Last month, the ministry replied to the I-T department conveying the status of the case and also asked it to share any ‘credible information’ that it might have.
Two of the country's watchdogs were also on the trail of the deal last year. The CVC had sought a status report on it in October. The Comptroller and Auditor General is already understood to have prepared a draft report for the defence ministry.
The trail of communication between the MEA and Rome over the last 12 months shows that the Italians have been sticking to the stand that till their internal process is over, no information can be shared with India.
In February and March last year, the MEA wrote twice to the Italian foreign ministry, but without any success.
Subsequently, an internal legal opinion was sought about getting in touch with the prosecutors directly.
Both in June and July, the prosecutors were contacted, but there was not much change in Rome's position. Following this in November, Sanfelice was called in to South Block.
A joint team of officials from the ministries of defence, external affairs and the CBI left for Italy on Monday night to gather evidence relating to the kickback scandal, which has already put the UPA government on the back foot ahead of the crucial budget session beginning February 21.
Following a suggestion from the Indian embassy in Rome, a move is now on to get Italian lawyers to explore more ways to get information in the chopper deal, which remains a matter of investigation as well as ongoing court proceedings there.
The Italians have been insisting that there is a clear demarcation between the executive and judiciary there, and the executive does not intervene unless the judicial process gets over. Unlike in India, even prosecutors are not part of the executive in Italy.