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Chopper scam – why government’s hands were tied

It has been a year since Indian and foreign media reported that India’s procurement of 12 VVIP helicopters from Italy’s Finmeccanica through Britain’s Agusta Westland was being probed for corruption by magistrates in Italy.

Yet, the government did not order any inquiry despite the Italian investigation.

It was in February 2012 that Italian media reported that local prosecutors had begun a probe into alleged unethical dealings by Finmeccanica, Italy, the parent company of Agusta Westland, and that the probe has been widened to include the Indian contract.

In an answer to a question in the Lok Sabha, defence minister AK Antony explained why he decided not to probe the matter.

Replying to MPs Saidul Haque and SR Jeyadural in November last year, Antony said that there were only media reports about the Italian inquiry, and no “specific information” about it. He explained that the Indian embassy in Rome was not able to get written confirmation from the Italian judiciary whether such an inquiry was indeed taking place, as reported by Italian and Indian media.

“Ministry of Defence is constantly pursuing the matter and committed to take suitable penalty measures in the event of allegations being substantiated. However, in the absence of any specific information in this regard, Government has not ordered any formal inquiry into the case so far,” Antony said.

So why did the Indian embassy fail to figure out whether such a probe was going on or not, even after trying for a year?

Antony’s explanation is as follows –

Soon after media reports in February, the ministry of defence sought a report from the Indian Embassy in Rome.

The embassy reported that “Italian Magistrates or Prosecutors are conducting preliminary investigations about allegations of financial malpractices occurring within Finmeccanica and its subsidiaries in general.”

However, that was not considered a good enough report to warrant an Indian inquiry into the matter.

“Following fresh media reports in May 2012, the Embassy of India was requested for an update on the matter. The Ambassador reported that preliminary administrative investigations were underway against Finmeccanica and its subsidiaries.”

However, MoD (ministry of defence) decided to wait further as specific and “further action (against the company by Italian authorities) would depend on the results of these preliminary administrative investigations of the Prosecutors Magistrates.”

Instead, the ministry directed the embassy to ask the Italian government for its “official position on the matter.” The Italian government said that it had “no official position” on an ongoing inquiry.

The Italian government pointed out that criminal investigations are conducted by independent magistrates in Italy who do not come under the government. As such, the Italian government would have no information about any such inquiry, it added.

The ministry of defence then asked the Indian Embassy in Rome to seek details from the Naples Prosecutor’s office. “No feedback has been received so far in this regard,” Antony told the Parliament in November, justifying his decision not to probe the matter.

In addition, the ministry of defense also made an official request to the Italian and the British governments for information on “whether any middleman was involved in the entire contract and was there involvement of any Indian individual or entity.”

Despite all this, it seems India was not able to get a written document from the Italian government that such an investigation was going on, or about the nature of the investigation.

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