By Prarthana Mitra
Five years after the Rs 3,600-crore AgustaWestland scandal, alleged middleman Christian James Michel was extradited to India from Dubai late on December 4, and appeared before a special CBI court Wednesday. He was arrested by the UAE authorities last year on a personal request made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Posing a significant development to India’s largest defence scam after Bofors, this move is believed to be the latest coup by the ruling centre ahead of the General Elections next year, and an affirmation of India’s G20 commitment to rein in fugitive economic offenders.
What is Michel’s role in the scam?
Michel, a 57-year-old British national, was an established arms dealer who allegedly helped Italian-owned British subsidiary AgustaWestland to clinch the 2010 deal with then Congress-led UPA government, for 12 AW101 choppers meant for VVIP use.
Michel was charge-sheeted in June 2016 for receiving 30 million euros (Rs 225 crore) to bribe Indian bureaucrats, politicians and Indian Air Force officials. According to his diaries now in possession of the CBI, Michel paid six million euros to Indian Air Force (IAF) officers, 8.4 million to bureaucrats in addition to 15-16 million to an unidentified political family.
Evidence points to a vast network of companies that aided in paying Michel his kickbacks on the pretext of consultancy fees. He has also been accused of laundering these funds through a number of shell companies he had set up, including a media firm in Delhi and another owned by then IAF chief SP Tyagi called Krishnom. Tyagi has also been accused of tweaking the contract to favour AgustaWestland ahead of the bidding process.
Michel is believed to have undertaken 300 trips to India between 1997 and 2013.
What was the AgustaWestland helicopter deal?
India in 2010 chose AW101 to replace the Russian helicopter Mi-8, for ferrying the top brass like PM, President etc. The Atal Bihari Vajpaiyee government was the first to highlight the need, owing to new threat perceptions, in 2002, when the first global Request for Proposal (RFP) for choppers was issued.
Amidst changing governments and criteria, AgustaWestland finally emerged as the winning bidder and the UPA government inked the deal, despite objections from the IAF which reportedly claimed that AW101 choppers were not capable of flying in high-altitude areas like Siachen and Tiger Hill. As soon as Tyagi came in as IAF chief, the complaints reportedly stopped.
By 2012, three AW101 helicopters were delivered to the IAF. But the following year, Italian law enforcement authorities arrested Bruno Spagnolini, then AgustaWestland CEO, and Giuseppe Orsi, the former president of Finmeccanica (which owns AW), for allegedly bribing the Indian government to bag the deal. The UPA regime first put the deal on hold and later cancelled it citing breach of contractual obligations in 2014. The CBI puts down a loss of 398.21 million euros (Rs 2,666 crore) to the exchequer due to this scrapped deal.
The Choppergate scam came to light in 2013 when the then-defence minister AK Antony accepted the fact that bribes were taken
Michel’s flight and eventual return
Michel’s alleged involvement as a middleman in the deal surfaced in 2012 shortly before he escaped and can be dated back to 2002. A fresh CBI charge sheet was filed in September last year naming him and eleven others.
An open non-bailable arrest was subsequently also issued against Michel following which the Interpol issued a Red Corner Notice which finally led to his arrest in Dubai last February. He faced prosecution there as several investigations revealed that he rerouted bribes to India through his Dubai-based firm Global Services. Michel has denied all the charges levelled against him. India has been working on getting him extradited ever since.
Currently in custody, Michel appeared before Special CBI Judge Arvind Kumar on Wednesday. The CBI is reportedly likely to request the court for extended custody to grill Michel.
Others named in the FIR
The 2017 chargesheet included two other middlemen Guido Haschke and Carlo Gerosa. The former seems to have written a note addressed to Michel, which named the Gandhi family, Sonia Gandhi’s personal aide, Pranab Mukherjee and several other Indian politicians.
The FIR also named four companies – Italy-based Finmeccanica, UK-based AgustaWestland and Chandigarh-based IDS Infotech and Aeromatrix, besides Tyagi, Satish Bagrodia (the brother of former Union minister Santosh Bagrodia) and Pratap Aggarwal (chairman and managing director of IDS Infotech).
Other senior officials involved in the decision-making process that led to the selection of the AgustaWestland helicopters for VIP use were MK Narayanan (Indian Police Service (IPS), former Director Intelligence Bureau (India) and NSA); BV Wanchoo (IPS, and Chief of Special Protection Group); and Shashi Kant Sharma, IAS, and former defence secretary. Billionaire arms dealer Abhishek Verma is also believed to responsible for getting the CSS clearance from the Cabinet committee.
The political angle
Sonia Gandhi’s name was dragged into the deal when a Milan court mentioned the conversations between the three middlemen mentioning a ‘Mrs. Gandhi’.
In July 2018, after Michel was granted bail in Dubai, he told the press that the CBI had pressurised him to frame the Congress leaders and specifically mention Sonia Gandhi in the course of the investigation. He revealed they promised a clean chit in the scam in return, which has been denied by the CBI. His advocate and sister told Indian media, “Modi government and its agencies were forcing him to sign a false confessional statement naming Gandhi in return for complete exoneration from any charge whatsoever in the AgustaWestland case.”
The Congress in return fired back demanding a CBI probe into Modi’s role in “exonerating” AW and the parent company Finmeccanica which was blacklisted by the UPA. Accusing the centre of a cover-up Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said on Wednesday, “The most intriguing part of the conspiracy is the undisclosed reason on part of Modi government for permitting a blacklisted company to get clearances from Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) and permit its entry as partner or sub-contractor to various Indian corporates.”
With the autonomy of the CBI currently compromised owing to an internal crisis, claims like these cast a shadow of doubt over the ongoing investigation. Meanwhile, other economic fugitives including Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi remain at large. Unlike Mallya who’s extradition is up for contention in a UK court, the Indian government was not a party before the Dubai Court in case of Michel’s return.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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