Why Chris­tian Michel has put cor­rup­tion back in the 2019 Lok Sabha elec­tion nar­ra­tive

The Northlines - - OPINION - Min­haz Mer­chant

Cor­rup­tion brought down the Man­mo­han Singh gov­ern­ment in 2014. Anna Hazare lit the spark. The tsunami of anger against se­rial scams in the UPA decade car­ried Naren­dra Modi to a his­toric vic­tory. But af­ter nearly five years of shadow-box­ing against Upa-era scams, the Modi gov­ern­ment was be­gin­ning to lose cred­i­bil­ity. The ac­cused in the 2G, CWG, Coal­gate, Air­cel-maxis and Agustawest­land scams seemed im­mune. Court cases dragged on. Rogue pub­lic prose­cu­tors sab­o­taged key cases. To rub salt into the BJP'S self-in­flicted wounds, eco­nomic of­fend­ers like Vi­jay Mallya, Ni­rav Modi and Me­hul Choksi fled - or were al­lowed to flee. Modi's own rep­u­ta­tion as an anti-cor­rup­tion cru­sader be­gan to fall apart.

How much of that rep­u­ta­tion can be re­stored with the ex­tra­di­tion of Chris­tian Michel from the United Arab Emi­rates (UAE)? Michel is a good catch for Modi in three ways.

First, he is in­trin­si­cally tied to the Gandhi fam­ily. His fa­ther, Wolf­gang Michel, who died in 2012, was a no­to­ri­ous arms dealer. He stalked the cor­ri­dors of Lu­tyens

Delhi in the 1980s and was re­port­edly close to the Gand­his. Ac­cord­ing to an in­ves­tiga­tive re­port by The Guardian in 2003, "Wolf­gang Michel said he had 'ne­go­ti­ated le­git­i­mate sales of civil air­craft to In­dia'. Com­pany records show he also had a busi­ness link with the French state- owned aero en­gine com­pany Snecma, which pow­ers Mi­rage fight­ers, the Air­bus and Rus­sian train­ers.

The se­cond rea­son why Michel's ex­tra­di­tion could be an elec­toral boon for Modi is the op­tics. An Euro­pean arms dealer in an In­dian jail sends out a sub­lim­i­nal mes­sage - not only is the gov­ern­ment se­ri­ous about bring­ing the cor­rupt to book, but even those with pow­er­ful con­nec­tions to In­dian politi­cians will not be spared.

Third, the fact that the gov­ern­ment pre­vailed upon the UAE au­thor­i­ties to ex­tra­dite Michel will res­onate.

The Emi­ratis are fa­mously pro­tec­tive of of­fend­ers on their soil.

Till re­cently, the UAE was (and to an ex­tent, still is) a safe haven for fugi­tives. To ex­tract Michel from Dubai rep­re­sents both a diplo­matic and in­tel­li­gence tri­umph for In­dia. It will send a chill down the spine of ter­ror­ists and eco­nomic ab­scon­ders who no longer can re­gard the

UAE as safe refuge.

As the Rs 3,600-crore Agustawest­land case winds its way through the courts, at­ten­tion will turn to Mallya, Choksi and Ni­rav Modi. Of the three, Mallya is the most likely to seek a set­tle­ment.

Af­ter re­fus­ing to pay even the salaries of for­mer King­fisher air­lines staff for nearly five years, Mallya is now ready to set­tle all dues.

Along with ac­crued in­ter­est, he owes over Rs 10,000 crore to banks, staff, statu­tory au­thor­i­ties (PF, ser­vice tax, air­port han­dling charges) and other cred­i­tors. The cur­rent value of Mallya's share­hold­ing in United Spir­its Ltd (USL) and United Brew­eries Ltd (UBL) is more than twice the amount he owes in to­tal­ity. The rise in the stock mar­ket over the past five years, and the value of pub­licly listed USL and UBL shares, will iron­i­cally help Mallya re­tain his dol­lar bil­lion­aire sta­tus even af­ter he pays 100 per cent of his dues.

The Choksi and Ni­rav Modi cases are more com­pli­cated. Both cre­ated fraud­u­lent en­ter­prises. Theirs was a pre-med­i­tated scam built over sev­eral years. Ex­tra­dit­ing these two fugi­tives will be a chal­lenge but, af­ter Michel's re­turn, they will be con­stantly look­ing over their shoul­der.

Modi will fully ex­ploit Michel's ex­tra­di­tion and trial in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elec­tion. But con­vict­ing Michel will not be easy.

Do In­dian in­ves­ti­ga­tors have enough proof? Cru­cially too, is there tan­gi­ble ev­i­dence to tie al­leged kick­backs in the Agustawest­land VVIP he­li­copter deal to se­nior Congress politi­cians like So­nia Gandhi and Ahmed Pa­tel?

So far, the CBI has re­lied on scrib­bled hand­writ­ten notes from Guido Haschke, a con­sul­tant for the Fin­mec­ca­nica group, to Michel, in which the cryp­tic an­no­ta­tions "FAM" and "AP" ap­pear with amounts to be dis­bursed. That may not meet the high bar of le­gal proof. Michel, a Bri­tish na­tional, is well con­nected. His sis­ter Sasha Oze­man and mother Va­lerie Fooks have stood by him with Oze­man is­su­ing pub­lic state­ments de­fend­ing her 57-year- old brother. Michel has de­nied that "FAM" re­ferred to the Gand­his or "AP" to Congress leader Ahmed Pa­tel. If he re­peats that de­nial in open court, the Gand­his could turn the ta­bles on Modi by cit­ing po­lit­i­cal vendetta.

The CBI'S record in suc­cess­fully pros­e­cut­ing cor­rup­tion cases is hardly ex­em­plary. It has not been able to bring clo­sure to any of the high-pro­file cases that orig­i­nated be­tween 2004 and 2014.

Mat­ters though could be dif­fer­ent in the Agustawest­land case.

The on­go­ing 2G case tar­gets Congress ally DMK. The Air­cel-maxis case in­volves charges against for­mer Fi­nance Min­is­ter P Chi­dambaram and his son Karthik. Agustawest­land, how­ever, goes right to the top of the Congress food chain - the Gand­his.

For Modi, Michel's ex­tra­di­tion couldn't have been timed bet­ter. Congress pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi has over the past few months tried to use the Rafale deal to flip the cor­rup­tion nar­ra­tive against Modi.

Rafale though is an empty bal­loon floated by the Congress. There is no cred­i­ble ev­i­dence of kick­backs. Agustawest­land is en­tirely dif­fer­ent. There is strong cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence that kick­backs were paid to In­di­ans. An Ital­ian court ob­served ear­lier this year: "The des­ti­na­tion - at least par­tial - of the il­licit fund­ing to the pay­ment of the price of cor­rup­tion of Air Chief Mar­shal Shashi Tyagi for his in­ter­ven­tion in favour of Agustawest­land for the VVIP he­li­copters com­pe­ti­tion is validly proven."

There is thus lit­tle doubt that Fin­mec­ca­nica (now Leonardo SPA), the par­ent com­pany of Agustawest­land, ap­par­ently paid bribes to In­dian mid­dle­men in the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment to win the VVIP chop­per deal. The ques­tion is - did the bribes stop at the Tyagis?

Ac­cord­ing to a re­port by Rahul Kan­wal in In­dia To­day on De­cem­ber 15, 2016, "Bribes as high as 16 mil­lion eu­ros might have been routed to one of In­dia's most pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal fam­i­lies to swing the Agustawest­land deal dur­ing UPA rule, se­cret notes writ­ten by Bri­tish arms dealer Chris­tian Michel re­veal. In­dia

To­day has ex­clu­sively ac­cessed his emails and hand-writ­ten re­marks that shed light on how the VVIP chop­per scan­dal could have been or­ches­trated. Metic­u­lously main­tained by the mas­ter­mid­dle­man, Michel, the di­aries pro­vide a com­pelling ev­i­dence of how shad­owy agents steered the Rs 3,600crore con­tract that the Man­mo­han Singh gov­ern­ment signed in 2010. His notes, which were seized by Ital­ian po­lice and handed over to the CBI later, show Agustawest­land's par­ent com­pany Fin­mec­ca­nica set aside 52 mil­lion eu­ros to bribe de­ci­sion-mak­ers in In­dia to clinch the deal. Sep­a­rately, Michel men­tioned 15 to 16 mil­lion eu­ros for a 'fam­ily' and an­other three mil­lion for ini­tials 'AP'. He did not ex­plain who the fam­ily or AP was."

A sep­a­rate fund for jour­nal­ists, es­ti­mated at six mil­lion eu­ros (Rs 48 crore), to write pos­i­tive ar­ti­cles on the Agustawest­land VVIP chop­per deal, was re­port­edly cre­ated with Michel, the prin­ci­pal dis­trib­u­tor of the largesse.

Af­ter spend­ing five days in CBI cus­tody, Michel's bail ap­pli­ca­tion will be heard on Mon­day, De­cem­ber 10. As cam­paign­ing for the 2019 Lok Sabha elec­tion heats up fol­low­ing the re­sults of the five Assem­bly polls on Tues­day, De­cem­ber 11, the ar­rest of Michel will again place cor­rup­tion at the heart of the elec­toral nar­ra­tive.

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