The gloves were off inside and outside Parliament Wednesday with the BJP and Congress trading charges over alleged payoffs in the supply of 12 AgustaWestland helicopters to India after an Italian appeals court handed prison terms to former chiefs of Finmeccanica and AgustaWestland on corruption charges.
Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told Rajya Sabha that “the bribe-giver has been convicted and now the bribe-taker has to be identified”. He said the written admission by the alleged middleman (James Christian Michel) has to be examined and an “investigation is underway”.
With the BJP cornering her and her party over the alleged payoffs, Congress president Sonia Gandhi dared the government, saying “I am not afraid… all accusations they are throwing at us are false”.
The government also rejected Michel’s claim of a purported meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Italian counterpart Renzi in New York last September. The Ministry of External Affairs, while denying any meeting between the two leaders on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, said that red corner notices had been issued against Michel by the CBI and Enforcement Directorate to seek his extradition to India.
Speaking in Rajya Sabha, Jaitley too rejected Michel’s claim of a meeting between the prime ministers. Earlier, chaotic scenes were witnessed when BJP’s Subramanian Swamy named Sonia Gandhi and linked her to the AgustaWestland deal. He referred to allegations made by Michel.
This infuriated Congress members who moved menacingly towards the treasury benches. Marshals stepped in, positioning themselves between the two sides to prevent any physical clash.
Deputy Chairman P J Kurien, who immediately adjourned the House for ten minutes, later expunged some of the references made to Sonia, saying Swamy should not name a person who cannot come and defend herself in the House — she is a member of the Lok Sabha. “I am not admonishing you as this is your first speech in the House. But the name is expunged.”
Dissatisfied with his response, Congress members protested in the well and raised slogans against Swamy, chanting “CIA agent is sitting here”.
Chairman Hamid Ansari asked both sides to calm down and let Question Hour begin. Thereafter, Congress members returned to their seats.
During the 10-minute adjournment, Swamy was surrounded by BJP members who were seen complimenting him. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani were among those who walked up to him. Shortly before the House reassembled, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi took Swamy aside to have a word with him. After the second adjournment, Jaitley and Swamy were seen discussing something.
Outside the House, Sonia said: “I am not afraid of anyone cornering me as there is no basis to that. All accusations they are throwing at us are false. Where is the proof? They are lying… this is part of a strategy of character assassination which we have known these people indulge in. The government is there for the last two years. What are they doing? Inquiry is there, why don’t they complete it? Complete it as soon as possible, impartially, so that the truth will come out.”
Her political secretary Ahmed Patel also rejected allegations against himself and the party. “Absolutely baseless,” he told reporters. He said the government should hang him if he is guilty. “This government, when they are saying all these things outside and inside Parliament, why can’t they investigate,” he said.
Countering Sonia, Parrikar dared the Congress to show the UPA government’s order blacklisting AgustaWestland. “When did they blacklist? Ask them first. Ask them what date the order was issued. Show me the copy of the order,” he told reporters.
In Lok Sabha, the Congress sought a discussion on the chopper deal, saying allegations had been made against its leaders. As soon as the House met, Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge said newspapers had reported allegations against his party leaders. “Names have appeared… we will have to think about it… we should discuss”. Speaker Sumitra Mahajan told him that the issue could be raised after Question Hour.
Rajiv Pratap Rudy said Sonia needed to ask the Italian court why her name and those of her party colleagues had figured in the case. “She is from Italy and I am sure she will have some connections back there. The reports have not been presented by the government or a BJP leader but by the media… She need not be afraid… Let the country know about it”, he said.
Rudy told reporters that notices for a discussion in the Lok Sabha had been given by BJP members Anurag Thakur, Meenakshi Lekhi and Om Birla. Once the motion is admitted, the Defence Minister will reply to it and all facts will be placed before the House. When he was asked about Sonia’s allegation that the BJP was indulging in character assassination, Rudy said, “It is for the Italian court to respond.”
Environment and Forests Minister Prakash Javadekar said the Congress, instead of disrupting Parliament, should introspect on what it had done to the country and explain the role of its leaders in the deal.
(With ENS inputs)