Chopper deal: why NDA's Brajesh Mishra had ordered changes in technical specs

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New Delhi:  With the government under fire for the Italian chopper deal now being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Congress-led UPA has sought to underscore that the tender for the deal was tweaked in 2003, when the BJP was in power at the Centre, with Brajesh Mishra as its National Security Advisor or NSA.

NDTV has access to a letter that Mr Mishra, who died last year, had written to the Air Chief of the time, Air Marshal S Krishnaswamy, suggesting that technical specifications for the 12 helicopters that India wanted to purchase be looked at again in consultation with the Special Protection Group or SPG, who are charged with the security of VVIPs like the President and the Prime Minister, for whose use the choppers were being bought.

Mr Mishra also expressed concern in his 2003 letter that specifications like the altitude at which the VVIP helicopters were required to operate had created a "single-vendor" situation, with only one company, Eurocopter, able to supply choppers that flew at 18,000 feet. Mr Mishra said that was unacceptable and advised the Air Chief to review the specs alongwith the defence secretary to "draw up realistic mandatory requirements satisfying operational, security and convenience requirements for VVIPs."

The SPG wanted changes like a taller cabin height at about 1.8 metres. The altitude at which the VVIP helicopters were required to operate was lowered from 18,000 feet to 15,000 feet, as it was argued that the VVIPs would rarely need to fly above 15,000 feet. Safety of engines was also emphasized.

On Tuesday, Giuseppe Orsi, the CEO of Finmeccanica was arrested in Rome and charged with bribing Indian officials to facilitate the sale of 12 helicopters to India. The Italian inquiry says that AgustaWestland, a subsidiary of Finmeccanica, qualified as a contender when Indian officials lowered the altitude at which the VVIP helicopters were required to operate. And that the introduction of an engine failure flying test favoured AgustaWestland, as its helicopters were the only ones in the tender operating with three engines.

The Italian inquest has alleged that Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi, who took office in 2004 and served as Air Chief till 2007, altered the tender for the helicopters so that AgustaWestland would bag the deal in return for kickbacks. Rejecting those allegations, the former air force chief has pointed out that the tender was changed in 2003, before he took over as Air Force chief, and that the deal was finalised and signed in 2010, three years after he retired.

As it trades charges with the Congress on which government is to blame, the BJP counters that Mr Mishra asked for changes on the advice of the SPG and points out that the final deal was signed in 2010 by the UPA government, which must accept responsibility and reveal the beneficiaries of the alleged swindle.

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