Congress president Sonia Gandhi hit back at the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government on Wednesday for linking her and other party leaders to the controversial AgustaWestland chopper deal that was scrapped in 2014.
Gandhi accused the Centre of indulging in “character assassination” and said she was not afraid as there was no basis to the charges levelled against her.
“All the accusations they are throwing at us are false,” she told reporters in the Parliament complex shortly before BJP leader Subramanian Swamy targeted her in the Rajya Sabha.
Following vociferous protests by Congress MPs, Swamy’s reference to her name was expunged.
The charges and counter-charges began after a Milan court convicted two Italian officials for bribing Indian officials and politicians to secure the Rs 3,727-crore contract in 2010.
AgustaWestland, a subsidiary of Italian defence giant Finmeccanica, allegedly paid more than Rs 375 crore as bribe in the deal to supply 12 VVIP helicopters to the Indian Air Force.
Although the Italian court did not indict any Indian politician, the BJP sought to corner the Congress over references in the court documents to middlemen talking about “Signora Gandhi” being the “driving force” behind the deal and referring to other Congress leaders -- Manmohan Singh, Ahmed Patel and Oscar Fernandez.
Launching her counter-attack against the Narendra Modi government, Gandhi asked what it did during the last two years and why it didn’t conclude the probe into the deal.
“What are they doing? Inquiry is there, why don’t they complete it? Complete it as soon as possible, impartially.”
Attacking the BJP for dragging Congress leaders into the scandal without any proof, she said: “They are lying. They are part of a strategy of character assassination which we have known these people indulge in.”
Her political secretary, Ahmed Patel, also dismissed allegations labelled against him.
“They (the government) are saying all these things outside and inside Parliament, why can’t they investigate… If there is something against me, they should find out and hang me.”
Patel told HT later that he will “examine” the option of filing a defamation suit against people making the allegations.
Former prime minister Manmohan Singh also refuted the allegations. “There is no case, my party will respond,” he said.
Former National Security Advisor (NSA) MK Narayanan too said he played no role in the controversial deal and there was no talk of kickbacks till he left the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in 2010.
Responding to a query on his alleged role as the “key advisor” to Gandhi, Narayanan said it was a revelation to him.
Gandhi’s offensive marked the Congress’ strategy in Parliament as the opposition party sought discussions on the issue in both Houses. Sources said the party has given a notice seeking a discussion on the issue in the Lok Sabha on Thursday.
The ruling alliance chose not to take up the issue in the Lok Sabha but the Rajya Sabha witnessed uproarious scenes after Swamy took Gandhi’s name while speaking on the deal.
Infuriated Congress MPs stormed the well of the house calling Swamy a “CIA agent” and raising objection to naming a person who is not a member of the house.
Some marshals rushed in to prevent the situation from taking an ugly turn. The house was adjourned for 10 minutes in the din that followed.
When it reassembled, deputy chairman PJ Kurien expunged Swamy’s reference saying that he should not name someone who cannot come and defend herself. “I am not admonishing you as this is your first speech in the House. But the name is expunged,” Kurien told Swamy.
Senior Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma met finance minister Arun Jaitley and parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu and are understood to have raised strong objections to Swamy’s conduct.
Azad earlier sought to corner the government by asking if PM Modi held a meeting with his Italian counterpart in September during which he offered to free two Italian marines in exchange of information on the Gandhi family.
Jaitley said the reports about the meeting were “false and untrue in entirety”. He said the principal issue was that there allegations of kickbacks to bag the deal.
“The bribe-giver has been convicted and now bribe-taker has to be identified… Investigation is underway,” he said.
But, Azad said the UPA government had scrapped the deal and ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate to probe the charges.
He said the UPA government had blacklisted the firm but the Modi government had involved it in the Make in India initiative.