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PM on copter frontfoot with Cameron
Domestic hint from UK table

Cameron with Singh at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Tuesday. Picture by Ramakant Kushwaha

New Delhi, Feb. 19: Call it a domestic sidewinder from the international high table. His attention focused on meeting the political storm over kickback allegations in the AgustaWestland chopper deal in the eye, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh minted an aggressive tone on alleged corruption with his British counterpart David Cameron.

“I have conveyed to the Prime Minister our very serious concerns regarding allegations that unethical means were used in securing the 2010 contract for AgustaWestland,” Singh told a joint media address with Cameron this afternoon.

Cameron was swift to offer assistance but clearly remained unwilling to accept the possibility of wrongdoing at the British end. “We will respond to any request for information,” Cameron said. “I am glad that the Italian authorities are looking into this issue in detail…. In Britain we have introduced anti-bribery legislation that is probably the strongest anywhere in the world. We will root out any problems of bribery and corruption wherever and whenever they appear.”

This marks only a slight, and not very significant, shift in Cameron’s case on the deal since he arrived here on a two-day whistle-stop tour on Monday. Initially, Cameron had washed his hands of the Rs 3,600-crore chopper deal, telling the BBC it was a “matter between India and Italy” and that there was nothing that made him suspect the dealings of AgustaWestland in Britain, where the company is headquartered.

He had also commended AgustaWestland as makers of “brilliant helicopters” and hinted that the murky end of the deal with India may have exclusively to do with the Italian firm Finmeccanica, against whom Italian prosecutors have already moved.

Cameron sounded non-committal on the specific issue of whether Britain will order a parallel probe. “People know if they do business with British companies they have those protections (against bribery)…. UK’s Serious Fraud Office itself will decide whether to look into the claims of bribery in the AgustaWestland chopper deal…”

As well as flagging transparency in such deals, Cameron has been forthright about backing AgustaWestland, both on grounds of “excellence” and for reasons of jobs it affords back home. It is also known that Cameron continues to lobby New Delhi for the purchase of the Eurofighter, well knowing that India is in final negotiations with France for the Rafale combat aircraft.

“That (Rafale) deal has not been signed yet, and we believe that if there is still a chance, India should seriously look at the Eurofighter, which is the best available,” Cameron said during interactions preparatory to his India visit.

Indian inquiries with the British may well go beyond the formal confines of AgustaWestland operations. George Michel, one of the alleged kickback kingpins, who is also reported to have played a part in narrowing India’s search for a combat aircraft to the French Rafale, is said to freelance out of London.

George Michel is son of Wolfgang Michel, an affluent lobbyist who was once instrumental in arranging a £10-million donation offer from the slain Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi to the cash-strapped British Labour Party in 2003; the deal never went through. The German-born elder Michel lived out of London’s posh Chelsea district and called himself an “agent on high-tech international deals”.

Read along with Prime Minister Singh’s declaration yesterday that his government was prepared to discuss the AgustaWestland deal, his assertive signal to the British visitor is part of the UPA’s we-have-nothing-to-hide posturing ahead of Thursday’s opening of the budget session of Parliament which portends tumult over a series of issues topped off by the AgustaWestland kickbacks, already labelled “Bofors II” by the Opposition.

Government sources suggest the treasury is “prepared to frontfoot” on the deal, declaring it has already set in motion a multi-pronged probe and issued a cancellation show-cause to the chopper firm. It isn’t clear yet, though, whether the government is prepared to concede the demand for a Supreme Court-monitored probe into the deal. It is likely to play for time citing moves it has initiated since Italian prosecutors blew the lid off payoffs in the deal last fortnight.

A joint secretary of the defence ministry and a team of CBI sleuths are currently in Italy trying to sniff out the kickback trail. The odds are their best efforts may not land much as Italian courts have declined to part with documents immediately. It does not help that relations between New Delhi and the Italian foreign office have turned luke-warm over the internment in Kerala of two Italian marines alleged to have shot and killed two Indian fishermen.