Defence minister Manohar Parrikar fired the Bofors barb at the Congress on Friday, declaring the government’s intent to catch the VVIP helicopter scam beneficiaries unlike the tainted howitzer deal of the 1980s in which the accused were not captured.
“What we could not do in Bofors, maybe we can do it in AgustaWestland,” he said, wrapping up a high-decibel debate in the Lok Sabha.
He was referring to a 1986 defence deal with Swedish gunmaker Bofors. The Congress had lost the 1989 election because of the scam and political rivals dragged former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s name into the scandal, though the judiciary cleared him in 2004.
Parrikar’s remarks were in response to Congress’s attempt to turn the tables on the government over the AgustaWestland helicopter scandal. The opposition party accused the government of trying to create an “illusion” through baseless allegations but doing nothing to identify the culprit or recover the money.
“What have you done in 720 days of your government? Have you brought in a single penny? Have you even identified a single person who has indulged in corruption,” asked Congress chief whip Jyotiraditya Scindia.
He demanded a Supreme Court-monitored investigation, with a mandate to submit its reports in Parliament every three months.
The defence minister rejected the Congress’s demand, saying he will personally monitor the investigation’s progress.
Parrikar, who looked a bit off colour in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday, was confident in the BJP-dominated Lok Sabha, calling his predecessor AK Antony a “bechara” - meaning helpless - who feared “his sainthood would be disrobed”. He alleged that some people in the UPA government were the real beneficiaries while former air chief SP Tyagi, on whose watch AgustaWestland got the contract, received a “chillar or small change from the scam.
Also, he referred to a “mysterious” fire in the air force office where important documents were kept.
He said he will ask the CBI to investigate if it was an act of arson or accident. “If anyone deliberately tried to start a fire, his attempt was unsuccessful as the AgustaWestland file was among the three that were not gutted.”
AgustaWestland, the British arm of Italian defence giant Finmeccanica, allegedly paid Rs 360 crore as bribe to Indian agents to secure a Rs 3,727-crore contract to supply a dozen helicopters for VVIPs.
The previous UPA government scrapped the deal over charges of kickbacks but the controversy resurfaced this April after an Italian court found two company executives guilty of corruption. Since then, the ruling BJP and opposition Congress have been trading charges.
The main opposition party staged a walkout from the Lok Sabha after Parrikar remarked that the Congress-led UPA government did everything to award the contract to AgustaWestland. He said some people from the “other side”- pointing towards the Congress benches in the House - made money from the deal.
Besides Parrikar, the BJP fielded parliamentarians Anurag Thakur, Nishikant Dubey and Kirit Somaiya to corner the Congress on Friday.
Scindia, one of the two speakers from the opposing side, dismissed the BJP’s allegations point-by-point. He put up a stout defence for Congress president Sonia Gandhi, saying her name did not figure in the authenticated documents and the Italian court too stated there was no evidence against her.
He said the BJP gets “irritated” the moment her name crops up since she is a “sherni” (lioness).