The Sunday Story

As Italian investigators probe alleged kickbacks in a Rs 3,546-crore deal involving an Italian company over the sale of VVIP helicopters to India, what's unraveling is an elaborate network of businessmen, government officials and politicians

When bad guy Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) and James Bond face off in some of the most daring stunt scenes of Skyfall, a little role went unnoticedóthat of two helicopters, AW101 and AW159. In somewhat less heroic circumstances, one of these choppers, the AW101, finds itself at the centre of a probe in Italy over a deal with the Indian government.

In February 2010, AgustaWestland won a Rs 3,546-crore contract for 12 AW101 helicopters. For most observers of India's military acquisition process, this deal was unlike any they had seen before. The process worked like clockworkóright from the time that tenders were floated in late 2006 to the trials, evaluations, government approvals and financial negotiations. It took the government just over three years to commit Rs 3,546 crore to AgustaWestland for the purchase of 12 new helicopters to replace the older-generation Russian machines that were used to transport senior government functionaries. So while other key acquisitions got shelved, the finance ministry, then headed by Pranab Mukherjee, cleared the chopper deal. In fact, the deal was pushed through after the Special Protection Group, then headed by B V Wanchoo, insisted that the helicopters were urgently needed due to security implications.

At a press conference on February 16, 2010, when asked why the VVIP helicopters got preference over other acquisitions, Defence Minister A K Antony said, "Not only the Air Force but the SPG was also involved. They told us that due to the security scenario, we should consider this proposal and the Finance Ministry also agreed to take their comments and it was cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security."

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