Michel’s testimony in the AgustaWestland case can stem the Cong crusade on Rafale and put it in a tough spot
The extradition of AgustaWestland “fixer” Christian Michel is no doubt a masterstroke of the Modi Government, considering that it has been under constant attack for its inability to bring back scamsters who have fled the country, jeweller Nirav Modi, his relative Mehul Choksi and former Kingfisher chief Vijay Mallya being cases in point. But now that he has been escorted out of Dubai, under the watchful eyes of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval no less, the Modi Government has something to show for its efforts, which began with a deportation plea as early as 2015, and counter barbs of not having enough gall to go after VIP absconders. It will help bolster his election plank of freeing the country of corruption and bringing errants to book. And this scam has the scale to capture eyeballs — Michel is accused of paying a few hundred crores as bribe to political leaders and playing around with tender guidelines after palming off bureaucrats of the then Government for sealing the contract of buying 12 VVIP helicopters from Agusta. Further, as trial court proceedings in Italy produced the communication between Michel and another middleman Guido Haschke, it implied that five per cent of the deal value of Rs 3,500 crore was to go “The Family” and that Michel shared proximity with the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Though Michel denied ever meeting Sonia, saying that the confession was extracted from him in exchange for relief, a hand-written note by Haschke does mention one “AP” leading to speculation. In short, this case has the political magnitude to put the Congress’ first family in the dock.
In the charged atmosphere in the run-up to the general elections of 2019, the ruling BJP seems to have stolen the march over the Congress temporarily. The new Congress chief Rahul Gandhi has over the past few months badgered the Modi regime over the Rafale deal and gratifying a “friendly” corporate by making it an offset partner at home. He has even linked it to farmers’ unrest and fuel prices, issues that can generate a perceptible common wave, implying that the Modi regime was for the suit boot and not for the common man. But Rafale remained swirling in a sea of technicalities that were observed or not observed and no way could implicate one person or even the system, of which the UPA, too, was once part of in the first-round negotiations. However, the AgustaWestland deal points to some beneficiaries by implication and Michel, therefore, has become the BJP’s proverbial stick to beat the Congress with. Particularly at a time when the Congress is in coalition mode, gathering as many allies as it can from the Opposition to build a polarity before the Lok Sabha polls. Of course, the Congress is blaming the Modi Government for using the Central probe agencies to “target the Gandhis and tarnish the image of the Opposition.” Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are already under the I-T scanner in the National Herald case. But if the Agusta probe is pushed through to its logical end, the Congress could be stuck in a pickle and Modi could appear to be much cleaner by comparison. It would also help common people thread this to the Bofors memories and bulk up the BJP narrative of the Congress first family receiving kickbacks while it was helming the Government. Michel’s alleged links to the Congress will also give the BJP enough dough to keep the anti-corruption ball going and keep the Congress on the defensive, particularly from building an embarrassing campaign around Rafale. Now that the State election verdicts are but days away, the Agusta story could still dim the Congress image even if it were to creditably win at least two States. If the Congress, even by mischance, doesn’t deliver as expected, it would surely be then left with no face-savers and Agusta could take it back to square one.