29 APRIL 2016
More noise than light
Regrettably, though perhaps not surprisingly, the debate in Parliament on the 2010 AgustaWestland helicopter deal produced more noise than light. The real issues relating to this controversial deal are somewhat self-evident, even if they were swamped by the furious and self-serving cut and thrust of words exchanged between BJP and Congress MPs. To begin with, the fact that a Milan appeals court has convicted two former top officials — of Finmeccanica and its helicopter subsidiary AgustaWestland — of corruption and over-invoicing in connection with the agreement to sell 12 VVIP helicopters to India cannot be brushed aside as trifling or irrelevant, merely because the deal was cancelled. While the documents submitted to the Italian court, which name Congress president Sonia Gandhi, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other advisers, are by no means clinching evidence of their guilt (as their detractors may like to make out), they certainly raise enough questions that deserve to be assiduously investigated. Despite avowals by the UPA of working in accordance with procedure to prosecute those who had facilitated the deal, the previous government did little to take the investigation further. Equally questionable is the NDA government’s own record in pursuing the case, which seems to have sped up only now, after the Milan high court overturned the lower court’s partial acquittal of Finmeccanica officials. The Centre’s stand that it was awaiting the completion of the appeals process in Italy before acting holds no water, as the appeals process is still ongoing and the case is expected to go to Italy’s Supreme Court.
At this juncture, it is only logical that the Centre welcomes all information, particularly when it is offered by key players, rather than shoot at the messenger. In this connection, it is especially unfortunate that someone with the sagacity and level-headedness of Arun Jaitley, who is the Minister of Information and Broadcasting to boot, should have imputed political motives to The Hindu for carrying an exclusive interview with alleged middleman Christian Michel, in reply to a question from a Congress leader in the Rajya Sabha. To deny Mr. Michel’s sensationalist contention, made also to an international tribunal in The Hague, that Prime Minister Modi tried to strike a deal with his Italian counterpart over AgustaWestland is one thing. But surely, if the Centre is committed to uncovering the truth about the helicopter deal, it was even more important to signal clearly that the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation would waste no time in pursuing Mr. Michel’s offer to be interrogated. Eradicating corruption from the defence sector is a necessity, not just for saving taxpayer money but also to uphold the country’s battlefield preparedness. Equipment bought on compromised quality standards can have untold consequences at critical moments. India must shed its reputation as the playground for corrupt middlemen. The AgustaWestland deal is an opportunity to work towards this goal.
Another missed opportunity
This week’s meeting between the Indian and Pakistani Foreign Secretaries in Delhi served as a reality check on the stalemate in the bilateral dialogue. Meeting on the sidelines of the Heart of Asia conference, the two officials failed to find common ground to kickstart the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue process, or even agree on a timetable. Both countries have now officially confirmed that the talks bore no results. In Parliament on Thursday, the government referred to the talks that lasted 90 minutes as a “courtesy call”; and Pakistan Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry said “no breakthrough” had emerged from his meeting with S. Jaishankar. The separate statements by the two foreign offices listing, point-wise, the issues discussed were an equal indicator of the discord. India raised its concerns about Pathankot, the 26/11 investigation, and consular access to alleged spy Kulbhushan Jadhav. Pakistan brought up alleged Indian interference in Balochistan and its concerns about investigations in the Samjhauta Express blast. Neither mentioned the other’s concerns, with both statements clearly aimed at their respective domestic audiences rather than a bilateral outreach. Mr. Jaishankar and Mr. Chaudhry may have discussed ways to move the dialogue process forward in a productive way. The only way to do this is to schedule structured meetings at the secretary level for the next few months, even as the two National Security Advisers take up issues related to terrorism in the wake of the Pathankot attack. Pakistan has been particularly reluctant for a full-fledged discussion on terrorism, but given that it hosts the SAARC summit this year, it may be willing to be more flexible in framing the talks agenda.
Despite many setbacks, there have been numerous occasions over the past year to encourage hope that dialogue will acquire some sort of permanence. To begin with, the meeting in Ufa between the two Prime Ministers that drew up an ambitious road map for talks, the subsequent meeting in Paris, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unscheduled Christmas Day visit to Lahore surprised each time and pulled ties out of a deep freeze. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s December visit to Islamabad, when a new Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue between the Foreign Secretaries was announced, as well as the sustained contact between the National Security Advisers, gave an impression of momentum towards a historic summit in November 2016. Mr. Modi is likely to attend the SAARC summit then. Importantly, Prime Ministers Modi and Nawaz Sharif, who have deliberately kept a direct line of conversation alive all these months, have expressed their vision of bilateral ties with clarity. It is now for the two governments — which in Pakistan’s case also means the military establishment — to work towards realising that vision. In a world where the U.S. and Cuba have restored ties, Russia and China have formed a close partnership, and Iran has emerged from isolation, it is not too much to hope that India and Pakistan can at least discuss key issues.