Govt divided over move to cancel VVIP chopper deal

10:43 AM, Tuesday, February 19th, 2013
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Salman KhurshidNew Delhi : The UPA government’s trepidation over the fate of the Rs 3,546 crore contract to buy 12 AugustaWestland VVIP helicopters is out in the open after Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid expressed his reservation on the defence ministry’s plan to scrap the deal.

A leading English newspaper reported on Tuesday that Khurshid is of the view that caution must be exercised against overreaction as what is of primary importance is that the issue should not affect India’s defence preparedness.

Khurshid also stressed that the final decision would be taken when the issue would be brought before the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the highest decision-making body on defence-related matters.

Khurshid’s view on the issue comes at a time when indications suggest that Defence Minister AK Antony may not flinch from taking the extreme step of cancelling the deal. Antony had so far been seen as acting on his own, and had chosen not to run his decisions past either the CCS or the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

Meanwhile, a CBI team left for Italy yesterday night to probe the allegations of kickbacks in the deal.

A Defence Ministry official told reporters that a lawyer is likely to be engaged in Italy to help the team understand the Italian law, represent India’s case with the local courts, and expedite the process of getting documents.

The defence ministry is also sending a senior joint secretary to Italy “to gather as much evidence as possible” relating to the allegations of corruption in the acquisition of the helicopters for the VVIP use by the Indian Air Force.

The Indian government has already put on hold the deal and launched the process to cancel it amid allegations that kickbacks of 51 million euro (approx USD 68 mn) were paid to clinch the deal.

It has also issued a show cause notice to AgustaWestland as to why the contract should not be scrapped in view of the corruption allegations. The notice is seen as a precursor to scrapping the deal as the defence ministry holds that bribery would be violative of the integrity pact that all defence suppliers are subject to and violations of which are liable to be punished by cancellation, fines and blacklisting of firms.

AgustaWestland has said it was preparing to clarify the points raised by the Indian government.

The helicopters were for the IAF’s elite Communication Squadron, which ferries the President, the Prime Minister and other VVIPs.



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