NEW DELHI (TIP): The Rs 3,546-crore contract for 12 AW-101helicopters, inked in February 2010,has emerged as a test case for defenceminister A K Antony, who has builthis entire political career on areputation for honesty, governmentcircles acknowledge.Although no finger has beenpointed at Antony, he is being blamedfor not moving swiftly enough whenthe first whiffs of a bribery scandalsurfaced over 11 months ago.
The minister has been criticized forbringing in the CBI only this weekafter the top executives ofAgustaWestland and its parentcompany Finmeccanica were arrestedin Italy.Sources said the Congress veteranwas determined to get to the bottom ofthe bribery scandal threatening totaint his squeaky clean political trackrecord.A strong indication of Antony’sresolve came in the form of a six-pagefactsheet, issued by the MoD onThursday, which shielded him fromthe controversial decision to tweakthe technical specifications for thehelicopters.
Government sources said outright cancellation of thecontract was no longer a far-fetched possibility. “If the contractsfor the Bofors howitzers and the HDW submarines in the mid-1980s could be terminated mid-way, even if they hit theoperational readiness and modernization of the armed forces ina major way, these are just choppers meant for VVIP travel,” saida source.The looming Budget session of Parliament, and theindication that the opposition is all set to feast on the latestscandal to hit the UPA, is proving to be a big push for a toughresponse.
The session is set to start on February 21, and thereare indications that the MoD might not even wait for the CBI tosubmit a formal report.Defence secretary Shashikant Sharma, as reported by TOIearlier, has also asked the Indian ambassador in Italy toformally procure the Italian court documents detailing thealleged payment of 51 million euros to swing the contract forAgustaWestland.These documents obtained officially couldserve as a tool for action in case the government feels it cannotafford to wait for the CBI to give its findings. “We want to finishthe ongoing review of the contract and take a decision beforethe next delivery of helicopters…
Proper documentation willensure there is no financial loss to India in the case ofarbitration or other proceedings at a later stage,” said a seniorofficial.Despite having inducted only three of the AW-101helicopters till now, with the remaining nine slated for deliveryin batches of three each in March,May and July, the defenceministry has already put on hold all further payments toAgustaWestland. India has paid a little over 50% of the totalamount to this UK-based subsidiary of Italian military giantFinmeccanica till now,while another tranche was to be paidlater this month.Both the contract and integrity pact inked withAgustaWestland contain specific provisions by which “strictaction including the cancellation of contract, recovery ofpayment, blacklisting and penal action” can be unleashedagainst the vendor.