Augusta Westland scam a.k.a. Choppergate is the biggest Defence-scam after the Bofors scam in the late 1980s. This Indian-Italian scam indicated a connection with major political leaders of the country. The deal struck between the two parties involved in a huge sum of around Rs 3,550 crores and many middlemen.

The scam has recently surfaced again in the light of latest extradition of Christian Michelle, the key middleman in the deal to India from Dubai.

Background of the Scam – 

In February 2010, after years of technical evaluation and commercial negotiations, the Indian government decided to procure 12 (3 engine) AW101 specially configured AUGUSTA WESTLAND choppers built by Italian defence manufacturing unit  Finmeccanica (now known as Leonardo Group) for Rs 3600 crore.

The purchase, cleared in 2010 by the previous United Progressive Alliance government, envisaged replacing aging Mi-8 choppers to ferry VVIPs such as the President, vice-president, Prime Minister and the other dignitaries.

It is alleged that bribes were paid to “middlemen”, perhaps even politicians, when India agreed to buy these helicopters. Several parameters, for instance, the height of the cabin of the helicopter, the operating ceiling, or the maximum altitude the helicopter could fly to, were tweaked to help Augusta Westland.

Then AgustaWestland CEO Bruno Spagnolini and Guiseppe Orsi, chairman of AgustaWestland’s parent company Finmeccanica, were arrested by Italian police in February 2013 on charges of paying bribes to win the deal. The then UPA government cancelled the deal, enchased the bank guarantee and ordered an inquiry.

Allegedly, Guido Ralph Haschke, his partner Carlos Gerosa and London-based consultant Christian Michel were paid kickbacks totalling € (around Rs 4 billion) in the Rs 36 billion deal for 12 VVIP helicopters inked with AgustaWestland, the UK-based subsidiary of Italian conglomerate Finmeccanica, in February 2010.

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CBI alleged the requirements were manipulated after a meeting between former air force chief, Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi and the accused. Because prior to Tyagi being appointed as Air Force chief, the IAF had ‘’vehemently opposed’’ the lowering of the altitude requirement.

In recent investigations by the Milan Court of Appeals, particularly in its 225-page judgment, Tyagi’s name appeared more than once. In its judgment, took note of the conversations between the three middlemen — Carlos Gerosa, Christian Michel and Guildo Haschke — who mention ‘Mrs Gandhi’ as being the ‘driving force behind the VIP’ and her close aides Ahmed Patel and Pranab Mukherjee — the latter is referred to as being the ‘British High Commissioner’.

Role of Christian Michel in Scam – 

Michel, a British businessman, is one of three main middlemen — along with Guido Haschke and Carlo Gerosa — who allegedly greased their way through the Indian bureaucracy and air force circles to broker the deal.

On paper, Michel had a €18.2 million contract to buy back discarded WG 30 choppers from India, a €6 million deal for servicing VVIP choppers and a €12 million contract to supply spares and parts for naval choppers.

Italian investigators named Michel as the key intermediary between AugustaWestland and the Indian middlemen involved in the deal. According to Italian court documents, Michel handled €18 million of the total kickback of €30 million. An Italy court, hearing the matter also noted that the payments made to Michel were grossly disproportionate to the work he promised to do for the company.

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The Milan court report further reveals that although it is suggested Michel got involved in the deal towards the end of 2006, he had actually been working on it since 2002 when the first global Request for Proposal (RFP) for choppers was issued (March 2002).

Michel was arrested in February 2017 by the UAE authorities and was facing prosecution there as several investigations revealed that he rerouted bribes to India through his Dubai-based firm Global Services. The ED investigation found that Michel made remittances through Global Services to a media firm he floated in Delhi, along with two Indians. This money was actually the funds he got from Augusta Westland to broker the deal.

Is it Modi government achievement or just a hype?

Michel’s extradition will now prove to be a big political opportunity for the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and it has already asserted that the development was an unequivocal affirmation of the government’s “seriousness in fighting corruption”.
In the scenario where the opposition keeps on raking up the Nirav Modi and the Vijay Mallya cases as failures of the government in holding absconders to account, Michel’s extradition will be a positive for the government.

After the extradition of Michel, who’s been sent to 5 days CBI custody, a worried Vijya Mallya appealed to Indian banks to accept his offer to pay back 100% of the principal loan amount he owes them. That just ahead of UK court decision on his plea not to extradite him to India.

Impact of Michele extradition on 2019 Loksabha polls

Meanwhile, it seems to be a big diplomatic win for Modi government ahead of 2019 loksabha polls, Christian Michel, the alleged middleman in the deal was extradited to India from Dubai recently.

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He was brought back from UAE in operation ‘Unicorn’ under the guidance of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. The operation was coordinated by interim CBI Director M Nageswar Rao.

To top it all, Michel’s alleged links to the Congress party will give the BJP enough ammunition to keep the issue alive for months and keep the Congress on the defensive ahead of 2019 Loksabha polls and in ongoing Hindu Heartland Vidhansabha (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chattisgarh) elections.

It will be interesting to see that what all news layers could be unwrapping by Christian Michel after 5 days CBI custody.

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