New Delhi: The government has sent a firm letter to AgustaWestland today, asking the helicopter manufacturer to explain if it paid bribes to Indian officials to land a 4,000-crore deal for 12 VVIP helicopters. The letter from Defence Minister AK Antony warns that the contract could be cancelled if the manufacturer does not cooperate. (Read: Defence Ministry's statement on acquisition of AgustaWestland choppers)
At home, the government was equally assertive that the changes to the tender for the helicopters were requested in 2003 by its predecessor, the BJP-led NDA coalition.
The alleged scam rests on the premise that without those revisions to the tender, AgustaWestland would not have made the cut.
The CBI is investigating the controversy which scaled up this week after the arrest in Italy of the CEO of Finmeccanica, the parent company of AgustaWestland.
Italian prosecutors in their report say that former Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi was paid to ensure that technical specifications were changed to suit AgustaWestland. He has denied the charges.
In a fact-sheet released today, the Defence Ministry says that the changes to the original tender were discussed and then notified between 2005 and 2006; this was during SP Tyagi's tenure as chief of the Air Force.
The Defence Ministry's fact-sheet also stresses that the instructions to revise the tender were issued in 2003, when the BJP-led NDA coalition was in power with Atal Behari Vajpayee as Prime Minister. That is the government's strategy to deflect the blame for the latest in a long line of swindles, a feature that the opposition wants to exploit in the run-up to next year's national election.
In rebuttal, the BJP says the changes were approved by the Congress-led UPA government in 2006, with Pranab Mukherjee as Defence Minister and that the deal was signed in 2010, so if a scam unfolded, it was on the Congress' watch.
The Italian enquiry says that two critical alterations to the original tender were dictated by AgustaWestland: the height at which the helicopters were required to fly was lowered from 18,000 feet to 15,000 feet; and engine failure flying test was added. This favoured AgustaWestland as its helicopters were the only ones in the tender operating with three engines.