In an election year, BJP is likely to go all out against ex-Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and her Man Friday Ahmed Patel on the AgustaWestland deal.
New Delhi: The extradition of Christian Michel, an alleged middleman in the AgustaWestland deal, has given the BJP ammunition to target the Congress and blunt the attacks on the Rafale deal.
Michel, 54, was among the alleged middlemen who brokered the deal for 12 VVIP helicopters with the UPA government in 2010, and who, investigators claim, paid bribes to officials and politicians to swing the contract in favour of AgustaWestland, the British arm of Italian firm Finmeccanica, which is now called Leonardo.
Michel had been under detention in Dubai. He was brought to Delhi in a private jet and then taken into custody by the CBI.
In an election year, the extradition can be seen as a major move by the Narendra Modi government to counter the Congress-led attacks on the Rafale deal. The BJP is likely to go all out to target former Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her former political secretary and current Congress treasurer Ahmed Patel.
BJP spokesperson G.V.L. Narasimha Rao claimed that Michel was “known to be a Gandhi-family loyalist… and his extradition and custody could spell serious trouble for the Congress’ first family”.
The Congress has denied all allegations against its leaders, but senior leaders are apprehensive that this may affect public perception, which can hurt them in 2019.
“The timing of the extradition is such that it can hurt the party. Everyone is keeping an eye on how things will unfold,” said a senior Congress leader.
However, a section of the Congress thinks it won’t cut much ice, for the simple reason that the credibility of the agencies is at its lowest.
“No one trusts the CBI, as it has been working at the behest of the BJP government. People are not going to fall for this,” said another senior leader.
Another leader claimed the decision to purchase VVIP helicopters was taken by Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA government, and “even the specifications and company were zeroed in on during Vajpayee’s tenure. The Congress, when it got to know about the allegations, cancelled the deal”.
“We know Michel is being pressurised to take names of Congress leaders. The BJP, on the other hand, has to answer for Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi and the Rafale deal.”
The 2016 allegations
The BJP had raised the controversial deal in Parliament in 2016 to corner the Congress.
BJP MP Subramanian Swamy had said those named in a note written by one of the alleged middlemen should be questioned by the CBI, and if necessary, it should be done in custody.
Citing Italian court documents, Swamy alleged that a bribe of 30 million euros was paid, out of which 6 million euros went to Indian Air Force personnel, 8.4 million euros to bureaucrats and Rs 125 crore to ‘AP’. The BJP had alleged ‘AP’ referred to Patel.
However, none of the Congress leaders have been named in the CBI chargesheet or FIR so far.
The ghosts of Bofors & Quattrocchi
Congress chief Rahul Gandhi has been attacking the BJP-led government over the Rafale deal, and has labelled Prime Minister Modi a “corrupt man”. The opposition has also been demanding a Joint Parliamentary Committee to look into the deal. In almost all his campaign speeches in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Rahul has used Rafale to target the Modi government.
However, Congress leaders are worried that Michel’s extradition will force the attacks on Rafale to be blunted. The BJP also knows well how to use allegations against the Congress — it used the Bofors gun deal to paint the party as corrupt for years, even though no charges were ever proven against former PM Rajiv Gandhi.
Ottavio Quattrocchi, considered a friend of the Gandhi family, allegedly served as the middleman in the Bofors deal, which saw massive kickbacks allegedly paid by the Swedish company to Indian politicians and defence officials.
In 2005, the Delhi High Court quashed charges against all the accused, and in 2011, a special CBI court discharged Italian businessman Quattrocchi, saying India had already spent Rs 250 crore on his extradition and could not afford to spend more.
At India’s behest, Quattrocchi was wanted by Interpol till 2009, until the CBI asked for him to be taken off the Red Corner Notice list.
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