On the night of December 4th, British national Christian Michel was extradited to India from Dubai. Michel is alleged to be a middleman in the ₹3,600 crore AgustaWestland VVIP chopper deal case, and he is wanted by investigation agencies in India. It is accused that bribes were paid to several politicians, bureaucrats and military officer in exchange to get this deal. Let’s have a brief look at what this case is.
In the year 1999, the Indian Air Force felt that it needed new helicopters for movements of VVIPs. At that time Mi-8 helicopters were used to transport prime minister, president and other such VVIPs. These helicopters were getting old, could not fly at night and also could not fly at high altitudes with maximum limit being 2000 meters.
Accordingly, bids were invited for supply of 12 helicopters in 2006, and one of the conditions specified was that the helicopter must be able to fly up to the altitude of 6000 meters. The maximum altitude of AgustaWestland AW-101 helicopter is 4500 meters, means it was not eligible to enter into the race. In the year 2004, S P Tyagi became the chief of Indian Air Force. And it is alleged that he got the tender terms changed to reduce the altitude requirement to 4,500 meters. After this alteration, the AW-101 became eligible for the deal and finally, it won the bid. In 2010, the government signed a deal to purchase 12 AW-101 helicopters for ₹3,600 crore.
In 2012, there were some media reports about corruption into the deal. In 2013, new came that AgustaWestland CEO Bruno Spagnoli, and parent company Finmeccanica’s chairman Guiseppe Orsi were arrested by the Italian government on the allegations of paying bribes to win the deal with India. The investigation in the case in Italy had revealed that Finmeccanica that paid bribes in India to seal the deal. It was found that IAF chief S P Tyagi and his family were among those who received this bribe. Bribes were paid through middleman Christian Michel, Carlo Gerosa and Guido Haschke.
Following this, then defence minister A K Anthony cancelled the deal, and an investigation was launched in India. The investigation revealed that the bribe money was routed through several shell companies to India. It was alleged that whopping ₹423 crore was paid as bribe by Finmeccanica. Out of this, ₹7.68 crore was paid the Tyagi brothers by middlemen.
One diary recovered from Michel had some notes which could indicate other recipients of the bribe. There were references to “AP”, “FAM”, “Pol”, “Bur”, “DG Acq”, “AF” etc under the heading “budget expenditure items” in the diary, allegedly a note of people who were paid bribes. The note says that “AF” was paid €6 million, “Bur” €8.4 million, “Pol” €6 million, “AP” €3 million and “Fam” €15-16 million. It is estimated that AF refers to Air Force, AP refers to Ahmed Patel, Fam means family, Pol means politicians, Bur means bureaucrats, DG Acq means Director General, Acquisition in defence ministry etc. The most interesting item in this list is Fam, which most people interpret to be referring to Sonia Gandhi and her family.
Another letter had appeared in Italian media, written by Michel to Peter Hulett, the then India sales of Augusta. In the letter, Michel writes “As Mrs Gandhi is the driving force behind the V.I.P., she will not fly anymore in the Mi-8. Mrs Gandhi and her closest advisers are the people the High Commissioner should target.” The letter mentions the key advisors of Mrs Gandhi that should be targeted, which include Manmohan Singh, Ahmed Patel, Paranab Mukherjee, Veerappa Moily, Oscar Fernandes, M K Narayanan and Vinay Singh.
While convicting Italian counterparts of the scam, an Italian court had mentioned this note, and quoted the name of Sonia Gandhi. The judgment also says middleman Haschke had identified all the Congress leaders in the court, when their photos were shown to him during the trial by the Italian prosecution.
These notes were not accepted by courts as definite proof as bribes being paid to those persons. But with the arrest of Christian Michel, this is expected to change. One of the things the investigating agencies will like to know is apart from Tyagi and his family, who else received the bribes. Because the Tyagis received only a small portion of the total amount of bribes paid, and the rest must have to influential politicians and bureaucrats who were instrumental in changing the tender terms to ensure that AgustaWestland is selected by the Indian government.