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9 December, 2018 12:25:24 PM

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Chasing the enemy

The BJP did what it was good at: shifted focus from Rafale and brought the Augusta deal centre-stage or so it hoped
Kumkum Chadha
Chasing the enemy

A gun and a helicopter seem to have muddied the waters between the Congress and the BJP in India. Charges and countercharges are being levelled at each other in the most vicious way.

Beginning with the gun, it has always played a crucial role in Indian politics. It haunted politicians in the Eighties and is raising its head yet again after three decades. In the past it took a toll in the Congress; now it is there to haunt the BJP government. Except the guns are different as also the dramatis personae. Then it was Bofors and now it is Rafale: then it was targeted at Rajiv Gandhi and now at Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Many in India are calling it the revenge of a son to avenge what was done to his father. Rahul Gandhi was then very young to understand politics and what Bofors did to a government that his father headed. Ofcourse it was not the BJP that pulled the rug from under Rajiv Gandhi’s feet but the Bofors hydra took a toll on his Prime Ministership.
It was in the mid eighties that the Indian government decided to replace the old field guns and artillery to be used by the Indian Army. It zeroed in on the 155 mm howitzers and signed a deal in 1986.
The Haubits FH-77 gun manufactured by AB Bofors of Sweden, was selected to supply the Indian Army with 410 155-mm howitzers. An option to license-produce 1000 more guns was also included in the deal. The amount was a significant $285 million (about Rs 1500 crore) then.

Had it not been for the Swedish Radio’s claim that

AB Bofors had paid kickbacks to key Indian policy makers and top defence officials to secure the deal, things would perhaps never come to a head.

The first whiff about the scandal came on April 16, 1987 when a Swedish Radio broadcast claimed that there were pay-offs in the deal. It was alleged that over Rs 64 crore was paid as bribe to some very powerful people. In the eye of the storm was Ottavio Quattrocchi, an Italian businessman who represented the Italian petrochemicals firm Snamprogetti and had reportedly rose to become a powerful broker between New Delhi and international businesses owing to his reported proximity to the Gandhi family.

The Bofors kickbacks became the key poll issue in the November parliamentary polls in 1989. The Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress was voted out of power and on December 26 of the same year, making way for VP Singh to take over.

CBI investigated the case and charges were filed against Rajiv Gandhi and Ottavio Quattrocchi among others.

Fast forward to 2015 when the Modi government decided to buy 36 French-manufactured Rafale fighter jets off-the-shelf  from Dassault, the French aircraft builder and integrator. Done to upgrade India's ageing fleet, the  plan was to buy 18 off-the-shelf jets from France's Dassault Aviation, with 108 others being assembled in India by the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited or HAL in Bengaluru.

Later the Modi government decided to buy 36 "ready-to-fly" fighters instead of trying to acquire technology from Dassault and make it in India.

This was enough for the Congress to jump in and accuse the ruling BJP of non-transparency in the multi-billion dollar deal. In September 2016, India signed an inter-governmental agreement with France to pay Rupees 58,000 crore or 7.8 billion Euros for 36 off-the-shelf Dassault Rafale twin-engine fighters. The Congress jumped in and said that the Government had favoured Anil Ambani’s Reliance for the deal and also agreed to buy each aircraft at a price that is three times more than what the previous UPA had negotiated with France in 2012.

Even while the Government said that the deal was transparent, the Congress went hammer and tongs over alleged irregularities. Many saw it as BJP’s Bofors moment so to say and Rahul Gandhi’s resolve to do Modi and his government what was done to his father.

The furore refused to die down and the Government appeared to be on a sticky wicket on Rafalel that had caught everyone’s imagination and was threatening to be detrimental to the Modi led dispensation.

The BJP did what it was good at: shifted focus from Rafale and brought the Augusta deal centre-stage or so it hoped.

AgustaWestland signed a Rs 3,546 crore contract to supply 12 AW-101 helicopters to the Indian Air Force. Eight of these helicopters were to be used to transport VVIPs including the President, the Prime Minister, the Vice President and others, while four were to be used for other

duties.

Indian nationals and the US-born consultant, Haschke, who also has Italian nationality, were the middlemen who made pay offs to clinch the deal and helped AgustaWestland to win the Indian contract. What however kicked a storm in India were names of Sonia Gandhi and senior Congressmen Ahmed Patel being linked to the deal. That the  Modi government is hell bent on tarnishing Sonia Gandhi’s name is quite clear and before Rafale could irreparably damage his government it tried to shift focus to Augusta by actually ensuring that middleman Christian Michel lands in India. He did and is now under interrogation by the CBI. He was extradited by the  UAE and landed in India earlier this week.

Both the timing and the politics that is playing out is interesting: timing because just before five states are going to polls, the government perhaps worked overtime to ensure that Michel lands in Delhi; the politics because it is hoped that he will sing and name Sonia Gandhi as one of the beneficiaries of the deal. Nothing so far but he has grabbed headlines and attention.

Michel’s extradition is a shot in the arm for the BJP government: even if not much headway is made  ahead of the state assembly polls, his disclosures to the CBI would perhaps provide  ammunition for the BJP to use against the Congress. It would also blunt the attacks on the Rafale deal.

More than disclosures it is the timing that is important and as general elections draw near the BJP hopes that skeletons will tumble out of the cupboard to aversely affect the Congress.

Irrespective, one thing is clear and that being that the BJP is worried about its prospects and more importantly Rahul Gandhi taking it on. While there is a perception that the naïve Gandhi is no match for a seasoned politician like Modi, there is also a lurking fear and a real one at that about Rahul Gandhi getting the better of Modi and even if he does not win the war, he has the capacity to chase the enemy. Getting Michal to India amply demonstrates the BJP’s nervousness.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: (kumkum91@gmail.com)

SHK

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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