A key accused for allegedly being the middleman in the infamous AgustaWestland chopper scam was brought to India late on Tuesday night after a UAE court issued extradition orders. The arrest of Christian Michel is being seen as a major achievement for the Narendra Modi government and a development that could prove damning for certain political figures.
So, why is Michel’s return to India after years of tracking him across several countries being considered a development of massive proportions in the case?
Back in 1999, the then NDA government had given the go-ahead for the purchase of eight VIP helicopters. Six years later, the UPA government increased the number of helicopters to 12. After winning a second term, the Congress-led government – in 2010, signed a deal worth Rs 3,546 with AgustaWestland for the purchase of these helicopters. Till now, there was no foul play suspected and the first batch of three helicopters arrived in the country by 2012.
2012 was, however, also the year when isolated reports began to trickle in of possible kickbacks being paid for the deal. Kickbacks are, in absolutely simple terms, an amount of money paid to someone illegally to ensure he/she can get a certain job done or get an objective met with.
The Pandora’s Box burst open in 2013 when the chief of Finmeccanica – parent company of AgustaWestland – was arrested in Italy on charges of paying kickbacks. It was then that the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) started its own inquiry into the possibility of kickbacks being paid in the chopper deal here in India. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) also got involved by launching its own probe. The massive uproar eventually resulted in the government of the time terminating the contract with AgustaWestland.
A major part of the allegations in the case is that the UPA government was willfully slow in looking into the matter. Even as allegations that several top officials in India could have been paid bribes of high amounts to ensure the deal falls into place.
By the time 2014 dawned, a change in the country’s political horizon was apparent. The BJP government stormed to power after campaigning on the back of promises that corruption would be stomped out and scams would be investigated thoroughly. By 2016, there was a steady move to corner the Congress with the NDA government, in Parliament, asking the party about which of its political leaders had received money from the AgustaWestland deal.
Christian Michel: His name came to the fore after a note was put forth in an Italian court which asked an AgustaWestland to ‘target’ advisors of Sonia Gandhi to ensure the deal for the helicopters was signed. It named people like then PM Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Veerappa Moily, Oscar Fernandes and others.
SP Tyagi: The role of former Air Force Chief was in question and he has been questioned by investigative agencies on numerous occasions. In September of 2015, ED also attached assets worth Rs 7 crore which allegedly belonged to family members of Tyagi. In July, he was arrested with his cousin Julie Tyagi and a Delhi-based lawyer named Gautam Khaitan who was suspected to be guilty of money laundering. Tyagi was granted bail by Delhi’s Patiala Court in September.
Abhishek Verma: He and his Romania-born wife Anca Neacsu were named suspects in 2013. The billionaire arms dealer had previously been suspected of receiving kickbacks for the Scorpene submarine deal. He denied the charges. He is also suspected to have played a role in the AgustaWestland deal but was exonerated by a CBI court in April of 2017.
Giuseppe Orsi and Bruno Spagnolini: While Orsi was the CEO of Finmeccanica, Spagnolini was the head of AgustaWestland. Both were extensively investigated by Italian agencies after charges that they had indulged in under-hand measures to secure contracts. After years of being in and out of prison, Milan’s Third Court of Appeals in January dismissed all charges against them citing lack of sufficient evidence.
The ‘what next’:
All eyes are now on Michel. The Indian investigative agencies have been wanting to question him for years and his extradition on Tuesday night is being seen as a major breakthrough. He landed in Delhi and was taken to the CBI headquarters where he would be questioned.
Michel, in his defence, maintains that he is innocent and all charges against him are absolutely false.
There are some in the Indian political circles who allege that the BJP is playing vendetta politics and may be trying to implicate Congress leaders through Michel ahead of the Lok Sabha elections next year.