SHASHI KANT SHARMA MUST RESIGN
A curious fact which seemed to have escaped attention in the on-going slugfest over the defence kickbacks scam is the caveat at the very beginning of the CAG report. The CAG began its report on the Augusta Westland VVIP helicopter scam by a seemingly innocuous disclaimer: “The audit is neither equipped nor empowered to investigate from a criminal or forensic point of view.”
The role and functions of the CAG are well-known. Of course, it has no tools of its own to undertake investigation or forensic examination of official records. That is the job of governmental agencies directly under the control of the political executive. CAG can only vet the records and make informed comments after perusing official files. Why, then, did it state the obvious unless it suspected something worse?
Was the disclaimer meant to undermine the CAG report, which had found gross irregularities in the Rs 3,600-crore purchase order for 12 VVIP choppers? Significantly, the chopper report was finalised when Vinod Rai was the CAG.
But it was presented to Parliament when Shashi Kant Sharma had taken over from Rai as CAG. Sharma’s anxiety to play down or even suppress any suggestion of wrongdoing would be natural. For, he was Director-General (Acquisitions) in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) when the deal was signed. He would be obviously interested in keeping a tight lid on the scam. And soon after his appointment as Defence Secretary he did take steps to cover up.
Though he could not alter the contents of the report, he could still insert the cautionary disclaimer to detract from its reliability. Thus, the objections raised at the time of Sharma’s appointment as CAG about the possible conflict of interest were indeed well-founded. For, as DG (Acquisitions) he had approved a number of such small and big deals. As CAG he could not be expected to be impartial while auditing the very same deals. Since Sharma had spent long years in senior positions in MoD, eventually becoming Defence Secretary, his appointment as CAG was designedly mala fide.
Regardless of the unusual CAG disclaimer, the political class is guilty of paying scant heed to the kickbacks scam until the Italian court imprisoned key officials involved in bribe-giving. The CAG report does mention unusual twists and turns in the negotiating process, leading up to the final order to the Anglo-Italian company. Then Air chief S.P. Tyagi and his cousins are already under intensive interrogation by the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate.
But an equally crucial role in altering the parameters so that Augusta Westland alone got the order was played by then Special Protection Group chief B.V. Wanchoo. A long-time Gandhi family loyalist, he was the longest serving SPG chief, getting multiple extensions after his first two-year term ended in 2006. In fact, he retired from the SPG itself in late 2011 after the helicopter deal was clinched by Augusta Westland.
If that is not suspicious enough, the fact that he spent over a fortnight in Italy as the guest of Augusta Westland must seem certainly puzzling. He was subsequently rewarded with the post of Governor, Goa.
As SPG chief, Wanchoo played a crucial role in changing the original requirement regarding cabin height. Making it absolutely essential that the cabin height be 1.8 metres, as against the earlier stipulation of 1.4 metres, tilted the scales in favour of Augusta-Westland. Particularly given the normal height of Indians—the global standard for choppers, in fact, is 1.4 metres—Wanchoo’s insistence on 1.8 was collusive. He himself barely stands 1.4 metres in his socks.
Meanwhile, Shashi Kant Sharma is under pressure to resign as the CAG. It is only a matter of time before the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate summon him. It would bring disrepute to the office of the CAG if the incumbent head himself is under a cloud. Also, he ought to keep in mind that Wanchoo felt obliged to resign as Goa Governor once the CBI called him for interrogation. Sharma should spare pelting the constitutional office of CAG, and put in his papers before he gets the inevitable call from the CBI and the ED.
ABORTIVE BID TO GAIN ENTRY INTO BJP CAMP
More on the chopper scam. It seems the Tyagi brothers, cousins of the scam-tainted former Air Force Chief S.P. Tyagi, have been middlemen for long, the Augusta Westland not being their first score. One of the brothers, the bearded Rajiv, who till the scam hit the headlines had always dressed in white dhoti-kurta, could be seen making the rounds of important politicians. In the late 1990s, sensing the decline of the Congress, he tried to switch sides, seeking an entry into the court of senior BJP leaders.
In the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, he parked himself in Lucknow, ostensibly campaigning for Atal Behari Vajpayee, but actually trying to gain access to the BJP leader. However, Tyagi found himself made a persona non grata once the Vajpayee PMO realised what his real vocation was. Aside from that short stint wooing the BJP leadership, Rajiv has always found doing business with Congress leaders most profitable. That is, till the Italians lifted the veil over the dubious role of the Tyagi brothers.
The Rajya Sabha debate on the helicopter scam revealed that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar is not among the most articulate members on the ruling party benches. His bland reading of a long statement left everyone unimpressed, even though he had a strong case to argue. Worse, he could have avoided that Akbar-Birbal joke about the “bamboo” getting short or long, causing a woman Congress MP from Andhra to comment innocently that his own bamboo seemed to have got shorter. The joke was about a gold spoon missing from Akbar’s kitchen and he tasking Birbal to locate the thief. Birbal gave suspects a bamboo each, warning that everyone’s except the thief’s bamboo would get shorter by four inches. As ordered, everyone returned the bamboo unchanged but not the thief. He had cut it by four inches. It was a poor analogy to drive the point that the bribe-takers had left their traces all over in the official records.
But the Congress members too failed to see the irony in demanding that Parrikar speak extempore, even when ministers are permitted under rules to read out from written statements, however long. Given that Sonia Gandhi hardly says two sentences in the Lok Sabha without reading from a script—even while writing a message in a condolence book she needs a chit in hand—when under the rules members are supposed to speak extempore, their protests against Parrikar were laughable. Again, of all the people, Abhishek Manu Singhvi defending alleged bribe-takers, insisting that “we are all respectable members” sounded rather ironical, specially coming from Singhvi.