NEW DELHI, Feb. 16 (Xinhua) -- First the Commonwealth Games scandal. Then came to fore the multi-billion-dollar telecom scam, followed by the coal scam. Now, a multi-million-dollar Italian helicopter deal scam has engulfed India's ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government a year and a half before the general elections.
What is the chopper scam all about?
In February 2010, India inked a 754-million-U.S. dollars deal with Italian defense giant Finmeccanica to acquire from its UK- based subsidiary AgustaWestland 12 state-of-the-art helicopters meant for ferrying key government figures, including the president and the prime Minister. Of the 12, three choppers have been already delivered to India, while the delivery of the rest are now put on hold.
Though the local media has been speculating for nearly a year about kickbacks being paid to officials in India by the Italian defense firm to bag the helicopter contract, the scam officially unfolded earlier this week when police arrested Finmeccanica's Chief Executive Officer Giuseppe Orsi in Milan on graft charges. He has resigned from his post and denied any wrongdoing.
But, the Italian police have claimed in a report to a court that a bribe of 51 million euros was allegedly paid by the defense giant to swing the VVIP chopper deal in its favor, through middlemen. The report is also said to contain names of a former Indian Air Force chief, two of his relatives, and few other serving senior Indian military officials, all allegedly involved in the scandal.
What is Indian government's reaction to the scam?
Exactly two days after the arrest in Italy, India on Wednesday ordered a high-level probe into the scandal, which will be conducted by the country's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
Announcing the probe at a press meet in the national capital, Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony said that the deal could be scrapped if proved that kickbacks were paid to secure the deal. " Once we get the preliminary inquiry report from the CBI, strongest action will be taken against those found guilty. Nobody will be spared whatever may be the consequences," he said.
India has also frozen all future payments to the Italian company and issued a showcause notice, asking it to explain within a week why the contract should not be canceled.
Defending the government, Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid on Saturday said that all procedures were " strictly followed" in the controversial chopper deal. "I don't think that could have been a better and a tighter compliance as far as procedures are concerned," he told the media.
However, sources said that a senior official from the Indian Defense Ministry would be leaving for Italy next week and even a CBI team could accompany him to gather evidence in connection with the scam which may rock the budget session of Parliament that starts Feb. 21.
Experts say the scam would be the latest ammunition for the country's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which could use it to corner the government desperately gasping for political breath.
"The BJP has in the past disrupted sessions in Parliament over telecom scam and the coal scam. Now, it may use the latest scandal to showcase how corruption has engulfed the UPA government. It is a huge cache of ammunition for the opposition party keeping in view the upcoming general elections," said Delhi-based political expert Prof. S.K. Singh.
He said that this could well be BJP's another political opportunity to steal the show as it is finalizing its strategy to ensure that it gets an upper hand before the country goes to polls next year.
Though the soft-spoken Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the equally gentle defense minister are both considered "Mr. Clean " in this country, the experts say that the Congress party faces massive wrath among the middle-class population in the country over its inability to tackle corruption and inflation, and this latest defense scandal is just like adding fuel to the fire.
Corruption in defense deals is not new in India which is the largest importer of weapons in the world. The Congress party was in the 1980s embroiled in another major defense scandal allegedly involving the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi over the purchase of Swedish Bofors artillery guns.