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Tyagi passes buck to Brajesh

New Delhi, Feb. 13: “I am only a fighter pilot who has been leading a retired life for six years,” says former Air Chief Marshal Shashi P. Tyagi, grabbing a half-hour from a series of television interviews he has been giving to television channels in his Gurgaon house.

The former head of the Indian Air Force is at the centre of the row over the AgustaWestland 101 VVIP helicopters since an Italian court named him as one of the beneficiaries of the “skyfall to windfall” bribes that Finmeccanica is alleged to have paid.

In the course of a conversation he says there were instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office, specifically from the late national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, and from the defence ministry on the specifications for the helicopters but, asserts, “I was under no political pressure”.

Tyagi is alleged to have taken bribes to tailor the specifications — the Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (ASQR) — of the helicopters in the tender for AgustaWestland. Specifically, he is alleged to have changed the requirement of the flight ceiling from 18,000 feet to 15,000 feet.

In his defence, he says the ASQR for the tender through which the luxury choppers were purchased were “frozen” in 2003, two years before he became the chief of air staff on January 1, 2005. The ASQR, while based on drafts from the Air Headquarters, have to be authorised by the defence minister.

In 2003, when the ASQR was “frozen”, George Fernandes was the defence minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government. On May 23, 2004, Pranab Mukherjee took over as the defence minister in Manmohan Singh’s first UPA government. Mukherjee quit the ministry on October 24, 2006, and moved on as finance minister while A.K. Antony took over the defence portfolio.

When the euro 560-million contract was signed in February 2010, Antony said it had the approval of the finance ministry.

Tyagi says that though the ASQR was “frozen” in 2003, he could not recall who — which minister — signed the document. He insists that a change in the ASQR needed to be signed by the defence minister in person.

In his term as the air chief till March 31, 2007, Tyagi says, he did not decide on the helicopters. The tender or Request for Proposals was issued in 2006 and the bids opened after he retired in 2007.

But Tyagi admits he met Carlo Gerosa, an Italian businessman who allegedly swung the deal and arranged the Rs 350 crore-plus bribe(s), as well as other Finmeccanica officials. While he recalls having met Gerosa at least twice with his cousins, Rajiv and Sanjeev Tyagi, businessmen named by the Italian court, he says he would have met officials of military companies in the course of normal duties.

Tyagi says he was estranged from his cousins, who run a consultancy arranging joint ventures between Indian and foreign firms in the power sector, for many years. He is reluctant to talk about his relations with his cousins though he admits that they are related.

But another family member said the former air chief had angered relatives after attending a religious conversion ceremony of the wife of a cousin in 1999. Tyagi says he was not in touch with his cousins till 2006 when he was air chief.

Tyagi says that even if the ASQR was changed, it was for professional reasons. “Consistency is the virtue of a fool. Wise men change their decisions,” he asserts.

“But I am saying the changes happened before I became Chief of Air Staff and they were suggested by the PMO, by Brajesh Mishra. There was a lot of correspondence between the PMO, the Special Protection Group (SPG), Air Headquarters and the ministry of defence,” he says.

The requirement for the VVIP helicopters was projected by the defence ministry in the year 2000, at a time Fernandes as defence minister would make periodic visits to the Siachen Glacier to meet troops. The Mi-8 helicopters that were used to transport VVIPs were also at the end of their lifecycle.

After the IAF made inquiries on the availability of helicopters with the requirements to transport VVIPs to high-altitude areas, it concluded that there was none that would meet the exacting demands. So the requirement was scaled down for the helicopter to be able to fly over the Zojila Pass, between Srinagar and Kargil. For this, said Tyagi, a helicopter capable of flying at an altitude of 15,000 feet would be good enough.

The SPG, then led by B.V. Wanchoo, now governor of Goa, also came in with its own specifications for the cabin in which the VVIP(s) would be accommodated. The SPG insisted that the cabin should be large enough for its armed commandos (detailed to protect the dignitaries) to stand erect and not crouch. The SPG also favoured a helicopter with failsafe engines.

The AW 101 was the only helicopter with three engines. Tyagi recalled that its competitors, the Sikorsky S-92 and the Russian Mi 17, failed in qualifying for different reasons. The S-92 did not meet the standards at flight evaluation trials (that were conducted after his tenure as the chief) and the Russian bid was disqualified because they had not complied with the financial obligations in the tender.

At his press conference this morning, defence minister Antony said he did not know of Tyagi’s involvement in the deal.

“I have no information within my hands... I will not say anything against any individual unless I get some reports from the CBI,” he said.