A top bureaucrat under whose watch key decisions were taken in the Rs 3,727-crore VVIP chopper contract said there was no pressure from any quarter to push the deal and the AgustaWestland AW-101 helicopter was a proven platform that met the air force’s requirements fully.
Breaking his silence on the chopper scam that has turned into a political hot potato, former defence secretary Vijay Singh said all decisions were taken in a professional manner following the advice of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and there were no signs of any wrongdoing.
The BJP-led NDA government has targeted the Congress in Parliament and outside, accusing the party’s top leaders of receiving kickbacks from middlemen to award the deal to UK-based AgustaWestland, a subsidiary of Italian defence conglomerate Finmeccanica.
“There was no question of any pressure (to award the deal). It was above board and cleared purely on merit,” said Singh, who served as defence secretary during 2007-09 and was one of the key decision-makers who authorised the chopper trials to be held in the UK.
Defence minister Manohar Parrikar has panned the erstwhile UPA government for allowing chopper trials to be held abroad.
Singh said there was nothing extraordinary about trials being conducted abroad and in the case of VVIP choppers, the decision was taken on the basis of “specific recommendations” from the IAF. He said then defence minister AK Antony noted that it would be a deviation from procedure after which the matter was put up before the defence procurement board (DPB) for approval.
The DPB, headed by the defence secretary, also consists of secretary (defence production) and vice-chiefs of the three services.
“Bringing the choppers to India would have added to the delay and involved additional costs. Then IAF chief Fali Major, who was a distinguished chopper pilot himself, said trials could be held abroad. We gave weightage to his words,” said Singh. Antony later endorsed the decision. Singh said trials were held abroad for Embraer and P-8I planes, too.
The NDA government has cast doubts on the capabilities of the chopper. Singh said, “It wasn’t a machine out of nowhere. It was a proven platform and more suited to our requirements than its US rival Sikorsky.”
India signed a contract for 12 AW-101 VVIP helicopters in February 2010. The UPA government terminated it in January 2014 following allegations that middlemen were paid more than Rs 375 crore to secure the deal.
The deal came back in focus in early April after an Italian court reversed the verdict of a lower court that held corruption could not be proved. But the higher court in Milan found two top Italian executives guilty of corruption.
Meanwhile, an alleged middleman told a news channel that he did describe Congress chief Sonia Gandhi in 2008 as “the driving force” behind the decision to import the choppers. But Christian Michel James clarified that his suggestion that Gandhi and her son be lobbied by diplomats did not mean bribes were paid to them.