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Govt reveals ‘Skyfall’ trail to Vajpayee
UPA seal on NDA choice

AK Antony at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Thursday. Picture by Prem Singh

New Delhi, Feb. 14: The Union government today came out with a chronology of events leading to the choice of the AgustaWestland “Skyfall” VVIP chopper that shows that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s office had asked the Indian Air Force to change specifications following which the Anglo-Italian firm went on to win a euro 556-million (about Rs 3,550-crore) contract.

Defence minister A.K. Antony has also directed his ministry to write to AgustaWestland asked if it had paid bribes to win the contract. A defence ministry statement says the contract empowers it to invoke provisions to cancel the deal, recover the cash and blacklist Finmeccanica-AgustaWestland.

The defence ministry fact sheet broadly corroborates the version of Air Chief Marshal (retired) Shashi P. Tyagi who said yesterday that the then national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, issued the directive in a meeting on November 19, 2003. George Fernandes was then the defence minister.

Air Chief Marshal Tyagi has been named in an Italian court and alleged to have had commissions routed to him through three Indian middlemen, who are his cousins, and two Italians who were consulted by Agusta and its holding company Finmeccanica.

Tyagi, who was the IAF chief from January 1, 2005, to March 31, 2006, has denied any involvement as detailed in the preliminary findings of the Italian court.

Brajesh Mishra died on September 28 last year. Fernandes, 83, is a patient of a brain disease that has caused loss of memory and cognition.

The government fact sheet also notes that the lowering of the operational requirement for the luxury “office-in-the-sky” helicopter to ferry VVIPs from 6,000 metres (19,685 feet) to 4,500 metres (14,763 feet) gave it greater choice because it widened the competition and allowed three companies (AgustaWestland, Sikorsky and Russian Rosoboronexport) to participate.

The preliminary findings of the Italian court state that bribes totalling more than Rs 350 crore were paid through a complex pipeline going through third countries, leading for some to a “windfall from skyfall” — bribes for the contract for the helicopter that featured in the latest James Bond movie.

In the time that it took the government to finally contract the deal, the defence ministry saw three ministers: George Fernandes, who quit with the exit of the NDA government in May 2004; Pranab Mukherjee, who took over as defence minister in May 2004 and left to take over the finance portfolio in October 2006, and Antony, who took over following Mukherjee and continues to this day.

During each of their tenures, the contract for the VVIP helicopters marked important milestones: under Fernandes, the decision was taken (1999) and the specifications frozen (2003); under Mukherjee the tender was issued (September 26, 2006) and under Antony the contract was signed (February 8, 2010).

Berlusconi on bribe

Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said bribes were a necessary part of doing business globally, defending former Finmeccanica chief Giuseppe Orsi, who was arrested in Milan on Tuesday.

“Bribes are a phenomenon that exists and it’s useless to deny the existence of these necessary situations,” Berlusconi said. “These are not crimes. We’re talking about paying a commission to someone in that country. Why, because those are the rules in that country,” he was quoted as saying by Bloomberg.