Friday, March 31st, 2023 15:41:18

Now, Don’t Destroy Indian Air Force

Updated: April 6, 2013 1:40 pm

Any keen and independent observer can easily draw the link between the ‘Italian marines’ issue and the recent alleged ‘helicopter scam’ by charting their respective trajectories. The beginning of both these issues has an uncanny coincidence

It was on February 15, 2012, that two marines, Salvatore Girone and Massimiliano Latorre, aboard the Italian vessel, Enrica Lexie, shot dead the two Indian fishermen, Ajesh Binki and Valentine Gelastine, around 20.5 nautical miles off the coast of Kerala. On the very next day, the then Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna summoned the Italian Ambassador in Delhi Giacomo Sanfelice di Monteforte and lodged a strong protest and also conveyed to his Italian counterpart that the incident was grievous considering the fact fishermen were unarmed and posed no threat to any ship.

Following the arrest of the Italian marines, it was in the same month that the first report about unethical dealings in VVIP helicopter deal appeared in the media. On December 17, 2012, a prisoner exchange programme was signed between India and Italy.

Meanwhile, the two marines were allowed by the Kerala High Court to proceed on leave to celebrate Christmas in their home country few days later. They were received by the Italian Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Luigi Pinelli Mantelli at Ciampino airport in Rome on December 22, 2012.

This was despite the fact that the two marines had killed the two fishermen aboard the fishing Indian vessel St. Antony under unforgiving circumstances. No warning shots were fired; no evasive measures were taken by the ship; there were no records on the mercury chart; the alarm systems of the ship was not activated; there were no records in the Data Voice-Recorder; the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre was not informed; and most unforgivingly the ship continued on its course to Egypt till it had travelled another 70 km after the incident till apprehended by the Indian Coast Guard.

Subsequently and rightly, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the Kerala High Court’s jurisdiction was confined to the contiguous zone and not the territorial waters. It also went to the extent of declaring that even the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction and a special court be constituted to carry out the trial. It gave the Italian authorities the freedom to argue the very validity of constitution of this special court.

Even such benign approach by the Indian judiciary did not placate the Italian authorities. The Italian Ambassador then requested the Hon’ble Supreme Court to grant permission to the marines to vote for elections in Italy. The court in a very liberal gesture granted permission to the two marines on February 22, 2013 for four weeks on the basis of a sworn affidavit by the Italian Ambassador, and email from the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister. But on March 11, 2013, in a move that can be construed as criminal breach of judicial trust, Italy reneged on its promise and declared that the marines would not be sent back.

It was during this period that the selective revelations about the beneficiaries of kickbacks on VVIP helicopter deal were made. It cleverly targeted the former Indian Air Force Chief Air Marshal SP Tyagi and stopped at revealing the other entity as “The Family”. The revelation and the manner in which the latter entity was insinuated was nothing but an exercise in brazen diplomatic blackmail.

What made the Indian dispensation shudder was the arrest of Giuseppe Orsi, the chief of Finmeccanica on February 13 this year. His arrest was not driven by any great sense of propriety or morality of the Italian dispensation, but was motivated by the Prime Minister Monti’s bid to scuttle the reclaim of Prime Minister’s post by Berlusconi in the run up to the elections. The selective revelations also maintained that 30 per cent of the bribe money was re-routed to Italy, the major beneficiary being the Northern League, a major coalition partner of the Berlusconi dispensation. The revelations therefore served twin purpose, i.e. to sully political rivals in Italy and blackmailing Indian dispensation to ‘keep off’ the Italian marines. Politics in Italy is notorious for its mafia culture.

The change in the Indian foreign minister portfolio on October 28, 2012, was not without alleged linkages with this explosive arms scandal. The new incumbent before his elevation was rendered extremely vulnerable and back-footed on account of corruption charges leveled by an activist, whose moorings and motivations are yet to be ascertained.

The government machinery was on an overdrive to ensure that the focus of wrongdoing remained on Air Marshal Tyagi. In this it was supported by a section of pliable and subverted media. It alleged that the Air Marshal and some of his relatives received Rs.70 lakh for tweaking the technical parameters of the VVIP helicopter in favour of AgustaWestland. The truth of the matter is that in November 2003, it was the then Principal Secretary to PM, Mr. Brijesh Mishra, who had observed that the stipulated operating ceiling of 6000 metres had led to the undesirable single vendor situation wherein the EC-225 of Eurocopter France would be the only bidder. He argued that very rarely, the VVIPs have to travel to Siachen Glacier. Mr. Mishra’s logic was robust and cannot be faulted. To blame Air Marshal Tyagi for manipulating the parameters is therefore a criminal conspiracy. He did not do it, even though a Chief of Air Staff as a technical expert is very much within his rights to ‘recommend’ suitable parameters. He is after all not a post-office. It is reiterated that the Air Chief is not an ‘approving authority’ but only a ‘recommending authority’.

Subsequently, with the reduction of flying ceiling to 4,500 metres, the two contenders finally were, M/s Sikorsky, USA (S-92 helicopter) and M/s AgustaWestland, UK (EH-101 helicopter), for the 12 VVIP helicopter deal. The trials of these two types of helicopters were carried out not in Indian operating conditions, but in the USA and the UK respectively in April 2008, much after Air Marshal Tyagi had retired.

The trial of the Sikorsky and AgustaWestland helicopters outside India constitutes the biggest fraud and criminal conspiracy in the said deal of which nobody is talking about. As per reports, the parent firm Finmeccanica paid about Rs 350 crore as kickbacks and bribes of which the Air Marshal and his relatives received only Rs 70 lakh. Who are the other beneficiaries?

There appears that there are vested interests in the country at the highest levels who are precipitating the complete breakdown of diplomatic relations with Italy for two linked purposes, i.e. to kill the issue of the manipulated escape of the Italian marines and foreclose the possibilities of obtaining names of other beneficiaries in VVIP helicopter deal by citing vitiated Indo-Italian relations.

All through the crisis, the Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, pompously and with characteristic colonial disdain, had been boasting to the people of Italy that he would bring the marines back and not allow them to be subjected to trial by Indian judiciary.

Sans the issue of Italian marines the corruption related to the VVIP helicopter deal would have never been used as a diplomatic blackmail and Air Marshal Tyagi would not have been the scapegoat. Also, the fact that 50 per cent of the Rs 3,600-crore deal has already been paid makes it a win-win situation for Finmeccanica. Also, with the names of other beneficiaries being deliberately withheld the Italian authorities must be assured that the larger business interests of Italy will remain intact.

Patriotic Indians must realise that in the ultimate analysis it is the Indian Air Force that has been targeted by the same sinners that sometime back targeted the Army Chief and in effect the Indian Army. India needs to sit up and take notice!

By RSN Singh

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