Sparks flew in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday as the Opposition and treasury benches traded charges over the VVIP chopper scam with the Congress lashing out at the government over its attempt to “vilify” party leaders through “insinuation and innuendo”.
Former defence minister AK Antony said the change in the choppers’ flying altitude and cabin height — which BJP leaders cited in support of their allegations against the Congress — were decided during the Atal Behari Vajpayee government’s tenure in November 2003 by the prime minister’s office.
The ruling party hit back with defence minister Manohar Parrikar saying an “invisible hand” guided the action or inaction of the CBI and the enforcement directorate probing the case of alleged kickbacks in the Rs 3,727-crore deal in favour of the UK-based AgustaWestland.
“The country wants to know who instigated, who supported and who benefited from corruption,” Parrikar said, adding that the inquiry would focus on the roles of those named in the recent judgment by an Italian court.
“Italian court has proof that there was ‘malafide intent’ and there was corruption in matter is brought out in extensive details in judgments of a Milan court,” Parrikar said.
“The Italian court has said there are omissions at many stages and the deal was cancelled by the government after the CAG advice,” he said in the Rajya Sabha.
Saying it was proved beyond doubt that there was corruption in the deal, Antony asked the government to take action against those who took money. “If you have evidence, take action but don’t threaten, don’t blackmail.”
Intervening in the short-duration discussion on the issue in the Rajya Sabha, Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel said there was an attempt to defame his party and its leaders and vowed to quit public life and resign from the House if charges against him were proved.
Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi accused the government of taking recourse to “insinuation and innuendo ” to “vilify the head of a political party” and attributed it to the BJP’s “visceral hatred”. Taking on the BJP for linking some initials mentioned in a handwritten note by one of the middlemen, which was also examined by an Italian court, Singhvi cited the Hawala case to point out it had no evidentiary value.
Rejecting the BJP’s attempt to link initials such as “CP, VP and AP” to the deal, Singhvi said “AP”, being interpreted as Ahmed Patel, could denote several people including the Gujarat CM (Anandiben Patel). He said such attempts reflected the hypocrisy of the ruling party as leader of the House Arun Jaitley had argued in the Hawala case, in which the initials “LKA” had figured, that these had no value as evidence.
He said the Modi government was trying to “foist corruption charges against those not involved” and asked whether it was not damaging the investigation and letting culprits escape by targeting political rivals.
Singhvi said Antony as defence minister had cancelled the deal and ordered a CBI probe. The UPA government had paid Rs 1,586 crore but recovered Rs 2,062 cr from AgustaWestland and three helicopters worth Rs 900 crore were impounded, he said. On the other hand, the NDA government allowed AgustaWestland’s parent companies, including Finmeccanica, to continue to do business, he said.
Initiating the debate, BJP leader Bhupendra Yadav said the single-vendor aspect was ignored, tests were allowed to be conducted abroad and even the specifications of altitude were reduced to 4,500 feet from the earlier benchmark of 6,000 feet.
Singhvi countered that, saying it was Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to then prime minister Vajpayee, who had taken the stance that the specification of 6,000 feet should be reduced as it was leading to a single-vendor situation.
BJP MP Subramanian Swamy said there was prima facie evidence to prosecute people named in the deal. Attacking Gandhi, he said those named in the middleman’s note should be questioned by the CBI .
The Opposition sought a Supreme Court-monitored CBI probe fearing that the investigating agency could be misused for political gains. Leader of the opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad asked the government to set a three-month deadline to finish the probe, but Congress MPs staged a walkout as they failed to get any assurance from the government.
Congress leader Anand Sharma accused the government of targeting his party to divert attention from its own failures. “We know the agenda and are determined to fight the agenda,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Gandhi said the BJP was “most welcome” to present in Parliament what the ruling party claimed were fresh revelations on the AgustaWestland chopper deal.
After a cabinet meeting later in the evening, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held deliberations with senior ministers, including Parrikar, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Venkaiah Naidu, to take stock of the situation.