New Delhi : History can be cruel. Much like nature and the principle of natural selection therein when applied to individuals, seldom has history allowed a family or its scions to survive had it found them lacking in any way. Be it the fall of the Roman empire (with all its corruption and infighting) or the collapse of some of the decadent Indian kings to the European powers, like a house of cards, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, anything that was not optimum for society for a sustained period of time was dealt a blow that incapacitated that family to the extent of wiping them out at times. A similar drama is unfolding even as we speak: the saga of the Gandhi family in India. I was apprehensive of using the name of Gandhi in the title or at all in this article since the depths to which this current-day Gandhi family has fallen to would make Mahatma Gandhi turn in his grave. For me, the erstwhile Congress, which had stalwarts such as Mahatma Gandhi, Chacha Nehru, Sardar Patel, Netaji Subhash Bose and so many others, was a party to look up to. A party of principles. A party that knew a brand of all-inclusive, even pragmatic, and compassionate politics that took the country forward. A party I may have liked to work for.

Not anymore!

Not after the way in which the party has become intertwined with the story of a family. A family that bedazzled and even bewildered some with its resilience but today is a shadow of its past. Today it is a party that may have immensely talented youth-leaders in the wings and some renowned veterans in its party fold but, given the general lack of true internal democracy, the talent is just allowed to ferment. And it is not only a certain ‘cheese’ of chicanery that is seemingly emerging from this fermentation but also the putrid odor of a rot so deep that there may be no coming back from this.  As much as I was not at peace with, and was critical about, the BJP government’s purported links to the Rafale controversy, after the clearance of the government’s name from this single major allegation of corruption, the needle naturally settles back on to a party that lost power due to the flurry of corruption scandals that rocked the country, be it the 2G scam [1], the coal scam [2], the Tatra truck scam, the CWG scam or the Adarsh scam.

The difference now is that it is just Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, instead of a whole number of people, who are in the pulpit. And this is even more shocking since the Gandhi scion has been raising a massive furore about the Rafale scam for the last six months; a furore on a case that did not stand up to the scrutiny of the highest judicial authority in the country – the Supreme Court! What the Gandhi scion does not understand or want to understand is that the cost of a bare aircraft and that of a weaponised aircraft is different; while, as per reports, the cost of the bare aircraft is cheaper by 9% as compared to the negotiations undertaken by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by the Indian National Congress and the cost of weaponised aircraft is 20% cheaper as well [3].

What one however cannot ignore and what has not stood up to the scrutiny of the courts are legal proceedings against the family at the helm of matters in the Indian National Congress. As if the taint of the Quattrocchi case was not enough, there is a whole lot of skeletons that are slowly tumbling out of the cupboard for the Grand Old Party of India. In this article I would like to only look at two of these cases and highlight why I see the Gandhi scion not only incapable of leading the country but as corrupt to such an extent that the office of the Prime Minister may be compromised if he were to ever acquire it!

The National Herald Calls

The Associated Journals Limited was the brainchild of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and was started with the support of about 5,000 freedom fighters, including stalwarts such as Purushottam Das Tandon, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai and Govind Ballabh Pant, who became shareholders of the company [4, 5]. This famous company, which had about 1,057 shareholders as of 29 September 2010 [6], was dragged into one of the most infamous cases of recent times: The National Herald scam.

The scam emerged due to an ongoing case filed by the Indian economist and BJP leader Subramanian Swamy against Sonia Gandhi and Indian National Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, their companies and associated persons. As per the complaint filed in the court of the Metropolitan Magistrate, Associated Journals Limited took an interest-free loan of 90.25 crore rupees from the Indian National Congress. It is alleged that the loan was never repaid [7]. Instead, a company called Young Indian was incorporated in November 2010 with a capital of 50 lakh rupees and it acquired almost all the shareholding of Associated Journals Limited and all its properties, which were allegedly worth 5000 crore rupees!

In a most recent development, in August 2018, the Income Tax department informed the High Court that the All India Congress Committee (AICC), the central decision-making assembly of the Indian National Congress, gave 99 crore rupees to Associate Journal Limited and added that Rahul Gandhi had willfully chosen not to disclose that he held the director’s post at the Young India [8]. The Central government also recently issued orders against National Herald for violations of the specified conditions on which the land was allocated. The building was reportedly allocated to the promoters of the newspaper for installing a press to print ‘National Herald’ but the premises were not being used for any printing activity and most of it is rented out. The Delhi High Court subsequently dismissed the petition filed by Associated Journals Limited challenging the eviction order by land and development authority. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi may be out on unconditional bail for the moment, but since even the Delhi High Court highlighted ‘criminal intent’, this case seems to be far from over.

Agusta Wasteland?

Although a number of political parties and governments in India have fought and won elections on the agenda of reducing corruption, it has been the recent National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government that has been at the forefront of actually getting things done. Be it the move to reduce the sway of the parallel economy of black money in the country or the move to catch hold of some of the greatest scammers in recent Indian history, it is the NDA government that needs to be lauded for these achievements.

One such scammer has been Christian Michel, who is alleged to be the middleman in the 3,600 crore rupees AgustaWestland VVIP chopper deal case, for which it was alleged that bribes were paid to several politicians, bureaucrats and military officer in exchange to secure this deal. In the year 1999, the Indian Air Force felt that it needed new helicopters for movements of VVIPs, after it determined that the then-used Mi-8 helicopters were getting old, could not fly at night and could fly only upto the altitude of 2000 meters. With the success of Operation Unicorn, spearheaded by National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, Michel is now in the custody of the Indian law enforcement agencies.

Subsequently, bids were invited for supply of 12 helicopters in 2006, and one of the conditions specified was that the helicopter must be able to fly up to the altitude of 6000 meters. The maximum altitude of AgustaWestland AW-101 helicopter is 4500 meters, thereby rendering it ineligible to enter into the race. It is alleged that the Indian Air Force chief S. P. Tyagi got the tender terms changed to reduce the altitude requirement to 4,500 meters [9]. The AW-101 then became eligible for the deal and, in fact, ended up winning the bid in a deal worth 3,600 crore rupees!

The investigation in the case in Italy had revealed that the parent company Finmeccanica had paid bribes in India to seal the deal, and it was found that Tyagi and his family were among those who received this bribe, which was paid through middleman such as Christian Michel and Guido Haschke. Although the then-Defence-Minister A. K. Anthony cancelled the deal, the subsequent investigation revealed that the bribe money was routed through several shell companies to India, with an alleged 423 crore rupees having been paid as bribe by Finmeccanica, out of which 7.68 crore rupees was paid to the family of S. P. Tyagi by middlemen.

Figure 1: Account of bribes paid in the AgustaWestland case [10]

What makes this case even more idiosyncratic and different were the revelations that soon emerged. The diary entry shown in Figure 1 is from the diary of  Christian Michel (though he claims they were written by Draschke), which had notes that purportedly indicated various recipients of the bribes. There were references to “AP”, “FAM”, “Pol”, “Bur”, “DG Acq”, “AF” etc under the heading “budget expenditure items” in the diary. Various agencies came to believe that AF referred to Air Force, AP to Ahmed Patel, Fam to Family, Pol to (other) Politicians, Bur to Bureaucrats and DG Acq to Director General, Acquisition in the Defence Ministry. Many people interpreted the item Fam as the Gandhi family and the author does neither believe nor negate that possibility. What changed the picture entirely were Christian Michel’s confessions.

Figure 2: Letter from Christian Michel to Peter Hullett, then-Head of Sales in India for AgustaWestland [10]

The letter from Christian Michel to Peter Hullett, then-Head of Sales in India for AgustaWestland, in 2008, categorically refers to a certain Mrs. Gandhi. The letter also mentions the key advisors of this `Mrs Gandhi’ that should be targeted, which include Manmohan Singh, Ahmed Patel, Paranab Mukherjee, Veerappa Moily, Oscar Fernandes, M K Narayanan and Vinay Singh. The reader can deduce the rest, for I need not state anything more here.

The other middleman Haschke had identified all the Congress leaders in court, as soon as their photos were shown to him during the trial by the Italian prosecution. What has made life tough for the Gandhis now are the statements of Christian Michel.  As per the Enforcement Directorate, Michel took the name of “Sonia Gandhi” and also spoke about “the son of the Italian lady” who is going to be “the next Prime Minister of the country” in a submission given to Delhi’s Patiala House Court in late December 2018 [11]. The reference or context of the naming has not been revealed and one must wait till more comes from the official sources. The scramble in the Congress fold makes one feel that something is not quite right. This was even more pronounced when Congress fell back on lies and false justifications to show how morally upright they had been in the past, when it came to this case.

The Congress, desperate to save its fold, recently said that it was their party that barred Finmeccanica and its subsidiaries while the NDA government revoked the ban whereas a Government document (Figure 3) clearly shows that it was the Modi government that did so. The purported revoking of the ban was actually just a clarification that highlighted that Finmeccanica & group companies were barred from ongoing and future defence deals (Figure 4).

Figure 3: Ministry of Defence document showing that Finmeccanica was suspended after Modi came to power [12]

Figure 4: Ministry of Defence 22/08/2014 order clarifying that Finmeccanica & group companies were barred from ongoing and future defence deals [12]

I feel the last few chips are yet to fall and then the picture will be very clear. If, God forbid, the names of the Gandhis comes to the fore in the harshest of lights, it will be a sad day for the Indian democracy. Already reduced to a position where it could not even claim the place of the principal Opposition party of India, the Congress has just one more bad turn before its newly found resurgence transforms into a swift sinking in the General Elections of 2019.

In Conclusion

I have always been a supporter of the existence of a number of voices within a democracy. Opposition, debate and discussion are what makes democracies truly functional and representative of the diverse views of the people. However, we are faced with a unique situation where even though the Congress Party has many strong leaders in its fold, its top rung and particularly the Gandhis at the top may prove to be a liability more than an asset in 2019, if the cases against it are proven to be true. Much like the flow of air is important for music and harmony (and the harmonium, haha), the flow of dynamism and clean politics is important for a good political future. However, it almost seems like a certain moral vacuum is what could stymie the RaGa that the Grand Old Party of India wants to sing.

N.B. This article was written based on research. References are below. 

References:

[1] Department of Telecommunications, Government of India.”Performance Audit Report on the Issue of Licences and Allocation of 2G Spectrum“. Report (2010). Available here.

[2] Comptroller and Auditor General of India (Union Government (Commercial)). Draft Performance Audit, Allocation of Coal Blocks and Augmentation of Coal Production by Coal India Limited”. Report (2012). Available here.

[3] India Today. “Flyaway Rafales cheaper in NDA deal: Dassault CEO Trappier“. Report (13 November 2018). Available here.

[4] Indian National Congress. “National Herald Initiative“. Sandesh (15 December 2015). Available here.

[5]  Abhimanyu Singh. “ 5,000 shareholders are big losers in National Herald case“. The Sunday Guardian (9 August 2014). Available here.

[6] Sandeep Singh. “National Herald case: Loan write-off, conflict of interest, benefiting takeover by family”. The Indian Express (9 December 2015). Available here.

[7]  Krishnadas Rajagopal. “The nitty-gritty of ‘The National Herald’ case“. The Hindu (10 December 2015). Available here.

[8] Asian News International. “National Herald case: SC allows I-T dept to continue with tax reassessment against Rahul, Sonia“. Business Standard (4 December 2018). Available here.

[9] Sushant Singh. “Explaining the VVIP chopper row that has rocked Parliament”. The Indian Express (9 December 2016). Available here.

[10] Rahul Kanwal. “AGUSTA PAPERS: Middleman Michel’s notes point to how 52 million euros were ‘allocated to bribe decision-makers’ in India to clinch chopper deal“. The Daily Mail (14 December 2016). Available here.

[11] Munish Chandra Pandey. “AgustaWestland case: ED claims Christian Michel said he was in touch with Sonia Gandhi“. India Today (29 December 2018). Available here.

[12] Ministry of Defence, Government of India. “Details of firms debarred and put on hold and suspended etc from doing business with MoD dated 02.08.2018“. Available here.

(Header Image Credit: Mauroof Khaleel; access here)