Defence Minister A K Antony told Parliament that the government was ready for a JPC probe into the chopper scandal that has been reported exclusively by The Indian Express.
The setting up of the 30-member JPC was decided through a government motion passed by the Rajya Sabha after a walkout by members of most of Opposition parties like BJP, JD(U), Trinamool Congress, CPI and AGP.
Moving the motion, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath said the JPC would submit its report within three months of its first sitting and rejected the Opposition contention that the decision would amount to putting the issue on the backburner.
He attacked the Opposition for walking out, saying they were “running away”.
Earlier, the House saw a debate during which the Opposition accused the government of inaction for over a year into the Rs 3,600 crore deal for 12 helicopters with AgustaWestland which has got into a controversy after allegations that kickbacks to the tune of Rs 362 crore were paid to bag it.
Replying to the debate, Defence Minister A K Antony asserted that there would be no “cover up” and the government was determined to go to the “root of the scam”.
Insisting that there was no inaction on his part, he said he ordered the CBI probe as soon as reports came about the arrest of Giuseppe Orsi, CEO of AgustaWestland's parent company Finmeccanica in Italy.
Noting that CBI has filed a preliminary enquiry and named 11 individuals, including former Air Chief S P Tyagi, Antony expressed confidence that the probe by the agency along with the one in Italy will bring out the truth.
“We have nothing to hide... We will not cover up, we will not be a party to cover-up. We will go to the root of the issue. Whoever is responsible will have to bear serious consequences,” Antony said about the scam which unfolded earlier this month.
Revealing that he had “thought” of quitting after the scam broke, he promised the strongest action against the company if evidence points to wrongdoing.
“It is a matter of serious concern. We have to go to the root of the scam and punish the culprits because every pie that the government spends comes from tax payers. Whoever swindled public money, they have to be booked, they have to pay the price,” he said, sharing concerns of the members who wanted to know the beneficiary of the kickbacks in India.
Besides the former Air Chief, his three cousins, former CEOs of Finmeccanica and AgustaWestland and five others have been named as accused in the case. Finmeccanica, AgustaWestland and Indian companies IDS Infotech and Aeromatrix have also been named in the case.
“I want to know the truth, I will not run away. I want to punish the guilty... I must pursue this case and punish the guilty to the maximum extent,” the Defence Minister said, adding “our track record is not cover up”.
Asking the Opposition not to politicise the issue, he said: “We thought to satisfy you and respect your sentiments, so we thought we can have JPC.”
Hitting out at the Opposition members for seemingly “enjoying the scam”, the senior Congress leader said, “As a public worker I feel ashamed... A scam is not to be enjoyed.”
He said the Italian court hearing the case has refused to share details, saying the proceedings are at preliminary stage.
“At the preliminary stage of investigations, only the arrested persons and their lawyers can have access to documents,” he said, adding: “If they cite preliminary stage of inquiry, what can we do?”
After the secrecy clause is over, the Italian authorities will share information, he said.
Taking part in the debate, Leader of the Opposition Arun Jaitley said the JPC in the chopper scam was an “exercise in futility” and “diversionary tactic”.
The noted lawyer contended that the case involved aspects such as extradition of accused foreigners and custodial interrogation and the JPC can have “none of these powers”, leaving it ineffective.
Derek O'brien (TMC) said the JPC was a “political cover up” while Shivanand Tiwari (JD-U) said his party would agree for a JPC only if it was headed by the Leader of Opposition.
D Raja (CPI) asked the government to defer the formation of JPC as many of the Opposition parties had expressed their opposition to it.
Earlier, Antony said AgustaWestland has denied the charges against it in its reply to the show cause notice but the Defence Ministry “does not believe their reply”.
He said two inquiries including one by Italian prosecutors and one by the CBI was going on and the Opposition argument that Indian government was not acting was a “flawed one”.
“Your argument is that we are not doing anything. Italian judiciary, independent of Italian government, are pursuing prosecution. Our investigation is a preliminary stage. They are in final stage, result of entire Italian inquiry will come now,” the minister said.
The Defence Minister said his Ministry's experience with the CBI inquiries was good as on basis of its investigations, a case was registered in the Ordnance Factory Board scam and six defence firms were blacklisted including four global defence firms.
“We blacklisted six firms including four powerful global firms. One of the firms has branches in 100 countries... We have shown no mercy and cancelled their contracts and blacklisted them for ten years,” he said.
Narrating the sequence of events, the minister said the process of acquiring the choppers was started 11 years ago in 1999 when an RFP was issued for eight VVIP choppers in which only one firm Eurocopter qualified.
He said after the then Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister wrote in 2003 that requirements should be changed for the chopper to fly at 4,500 metre, a fresh tender was issued.
Antony said all the procedures given in the defence procurement process have been followed in all the 10 to 11 levels it has to pass through but there were “doubts” and that is why the CBI probe was ordered.
“At all stages, selection was on basis of recommendations of the IAF and for certain parts by the SPG,” he said adding that six IAF chiefs, six Defence Secretaries and five Defence Ministers have changed in the 11-year time period.
The Defence Minister said there is a “integrity clause” under which if any foul play is found, the government has powers to cancel the contract and encash all the bank guarantees can be encashed and all the money paid for the contract can be recovered.
“They can be debarred for a minimum of five years,” he said.
Antony said once the government gets “report of preliminary inquiry from CBI, if we get evidence otherwise also, we will take strongest action as per integrity pact.”
He said whenever he gets complaints, he does not throw them in the dustbin and after receiving one such complaint from Edmond Allen from the US, he ordered a CBI probe after which alleged arms dealer Abhishek Verma was arrested and is now in jail.
The minister said there are doubts that the CBI probe into the matter will slow down modernisation of the armed forces but assured the House that the government would ensure speedy modernisation.
On the demand for a Supreme Court-monitored probe into the deal, the minister said the “Supreme Court is not in my hands”.
Initiating the discussion, Prakash Javedkar (BJP) demanded a Supreme Court-monitored probe into the AgustaWestland chopper deal alleging that over Rs 400 crore kickbacks were paid to seal the deal to supply 12 VVIP helicopters to India.
He also demanded that money trail must also be established and Letter Rogatory (LRs) be issued.
Charging the government with sitting over the scam till the arrest of the chief executive of Finmeccanica Giuseppe Orsi, he said the alleged middleman in the deal Guido Haschke be brought and tried in India.
“I demand that there should be a Supreme Court-monitored probe,” Javdekar said.
He said the probe should also find out “the family” referred to in the Italian court documents.
“When I raised the family issue earlier, the Congress had taken offence to it despite no names being raised by me,” he said.
Javadekar said the ruling party has a pattern when it comes to scams. “In all scams, the Congress first denies the existence of scam. Second, it delays the probe. Third, it blames bureaucrats. This is a game of cover up,” he told the House.
He alleged that the Defence Minister was presiding over corrupt deals despite Congress claim that he cannot be challenged. “That is why he is the most answerable.”
He said in December last year when he had questioned the deal based on reports from Italy, the ministry had said in absence of specific report, “we have not started a formal probe”.
“But a newspaper has revealed recently that the ministry had conducted an internal probe and found no irregularities. Then why are you hiding it from me. This is a breach of privilege,” he said.
However, defending the government on the issue, EMS Natchiappan (Cong) said the deal was a victim of “corporate rivalry” which was played up by the media.
“There is competition among the corporates to clinch deals and there was rivalry,” he said.
He said the government has black listed companies found committing irregularities and there was nothing to hide as they were ready for any discussion on it.
Terming the allegations into the chopper deal as “serious”, BSP chief Mayawati demanded a JPC probe and a halt in the deal till the investigation is complete.
She also noted that key legislations are falling victim in wake of such scams as much time is spent deliberating on these allegations.
She particularly referred to the SC and ST quota bill which is pending in Lok Sabha.
The recent scam, she said, has eroded the position of the government in the public eyes.
Demanding a SC monitored probe, T K Rangaraj (CPI) said the issue of lowering the height of the chopper in particular should be probed into.
TMC leader Sukhendu Sekhar Roy demanded Antony's resignation “taking moral responsibility”. He regretted no arrest has been made so far despite several leads into the scam.
Naresh Agarwal (SP) wanted a JPC inquiry while Shivanand Tiwari (JD-U) sought a SC-monitored probe.