Fixing, lobbying, and the Tyagi brothers: A succinct history of the Agusta Westland scam
The Agusta Westland saga is a pertinent example of the selective memory syndrome gripping Indian politicians
Mohan Guruswamy Delhi
Anybody who sells any system, product or service to any organisation, which purportedly has an “open and transparent” method of making a choice, knows that the first thing to fix to is setting the specifications to exclusively suit the client.
Like all other deals, be it for paper clips or nuclear power plants, the AgustaWestland deal for 12 choppers worth Rs 3,600 crore almost certainly involved a set of fixes. But before that, some background is necessary.
It began with the peripatetic George Fernandes, the Defence Minister in the National Democratic Alliance’s first stint in government, making frequent and highly publicised visits to meet the jawans manning the Saltoro ridgeline in the Siachen sector. This involved precarious flights on aging Indian Air Force Cheetah helicopters.
The Cheetahs were license-built Aerospatiale Alouette II SA 315B Lama helicopters of the late 1960s. A Cheetah can carry upto five persons in a tight squeeze and has a range of about 300 nautical miles and a maximum speed of 103 knots. It is powered by a single Turbomeca TM 333-2M2 engine, which has just about in it to make it to the Saltoro passes. It still flies, but since their induction in 1972, 191 Chetaks and Cheetahs have crashed, killing 294 personnel in all.
Some years ago, I flew in a Cheetah from Leh to the Partapur headquarters of the Siachen brigade. I distinctly recall that a string fastened the Plexiglas door and the chopper struggled to make it past Khardung La. We had to get back before afternoon thermals thinned the air. Clearly the choppers were inadequate, and only pilot skills and the doughty grit of IAF and Army engineers have kept them going.
With George Fernandes making frequent trips, the IAF, with its keen instinct for acquisition, saw an opportunity to augment its high altitude-capable fleet of helicopters. What more sacred cows can there be than our aging ministers? So a request was made to the government (remember that the services are not part of government) for a squadron of new VIP helicopters to make the Cheetah and the equally aging Russian Mi-8 (Hip) helicopters redundant.
The IAF then preferred the Eurocopter EC225 Super Puma as the replacement. This is a twin-engined, long-range passenger transport helicopter that can carry up to 24 passengers plus three crew members. It had a service height ceiling of 6,000 metres. It was the only helicopter of its kind with this ceiling, the others being limited to 4,500 metres.This was when and where the fix was made.
According to the Defence Ministry, On November 19, 2003 a meeting was taken by then Principal Secretary to PM [Brajesh Mishra, also National Security Adviser) on this subject. In the meeting, Principal Secretary observed that his main concern was that the framing of the mandatory requirements has led us effectively into a single vendor situation. It was also noted that the PM and President have rarely made visits to places involving flying at an altitude beyond 4,500 metres. In the meeting it was decided to make the mandatory requirement for operational altitude 4,500 metres. The higher flying ceiling of 6,000 metres, and a cabinet height of 1.8 metres could be made desirable operational requirements. It was observed that with these revisions, several helicopters which otherwise met all requirements but had been rejected due to the altitude restriction, would now come into the reckoning.
The all-powerful Brajesh Mishra followed up this meeting with a letter on December 22, 2003 to the Indian Air Force chief, Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy, wherein he chastised: "... that it was unfortunate that neither PMO nor SPG [Special Protection group] was consulted while framing these mandatory requirements."
He then ordered the IAF Chief and the Defence Secretary to jointly review the matter to draw up realistic mandatory requirements satisfying operational, security and convenience requirements of VIPs and also set in motion a fast track process for selection and acquisition of the replacement helicopters.This was done.
Now let’s meet the three Tyagi brothers – Sanjeev (Julie), Sandeep and Rajiv (Docsa). The trio also happen to be the cousins of Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi, who became Indian Air Force chief in 2005 and retired in 2007. It is important to remember that SP Tyagi, a distinguished fighter pilot, was not the IAF chief when the specifications of the deal were changed nor when the order was placed in 2009.
The Tyagi brothers became representatives of AgustaWestland, owned by the Italian government’s Finmeccanica (now renamed Leonardo group), in 1996. They were reasonably well known in certain Delhi circles where high-value dealings happen. The youngest Tyagi brother, Docsa (doctor sahib), was a medical doctor who found another calling that better suited him. At one time, he was actor Amitabh Bachchan’s political aide. Bachchan had a penchant for sharp business deals and Docsa obviously learnt well. He was a standard fixture at the Taj Mahal Hotel on Mansingh Road in the capital.
After Bachchan quit politics, Docsa entered former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s circle. Soon, he was running errands for him in the Lucknow Lok Sabha constituency, where he was reported to be the main liaison with the local Muslim community. Vajpayee’s “foster” son-in-law, Ranjan Bhattacharya, was the man who managed the affairs pertaining to Lucknow. Docsa and he were closely associated, with Bhattacharya’s power and influence in the Vajpayee era well known and widely recorded.
Thanks to these connections, the IAF’s preferred Eurocopter EC225 was no longer to be the sole option. A miffed Eurocopter opted out. This is how the AgustaWestland EH-101 and Sikorsky S-92 came into the reckoning. But it was a no-contest between them.
For starters, the Agusta has three engines, one of which was an auxiliary to kick in more power in a drift down scenario. It had a cabin height of 1.83 metres, something which the SPG insisted on, as the guards could be standing upright with drawn weapons in the cabin during landing and take-off.
Now as far as corruption goes, the usual narrative is that nothing happens in India without under-the-table payments. But what is less known is that this is often the pretext for managements of foreign companies to make some big money for themselves. I have always held that Indian politicians and bureaucrats are the bottom feeders in the crooking pool.
The three Tyagi brothers fetched around Rs 11 crore, while a bigger payment track of over Rs 300 crore led to the Italian and Indian owners of two dummy companies in Tunisia and India, and to a flimflam man called Christian Michel, the son of the Michel who figured in the Bofors deal. Does this lead to another son-in-law? We’ll have to wait and watch.
The Bharatiya Janata Party is making much of the Milan Court of Appealsjudgment convicting Giuseppe Orsi and Bruno Spagnolini, the CEOs of Finmeccanica and AgustaWestland, for “false accounting and corruption”. The judges referred to an unsigned note purportedly by Christian Michel, which refers to Congress president Sonia Gandhi and the then Prime Minister among others. But an unsigned note has no evidentiary value. This was the basis for dismissing the charges against senior BJP leaders LK Advani and others in the Jain hawala case. The BJP is now conveniently forgetting this. This is politics, where selective memories and far-fetched conjecture thrive.