The BJP will use AgustaWestland to counter Rahul's offensive against PM Modi

From the historic Battle of the Alps to their rivalry on the football field, Italy and France have always had the trickiest of relations. The two neighbours are all set to clash once again, but this time nearly 7,000 km from home, on the Indian political battlefield. As India steps into election season, the names of Italian helicopter company AgustaWestland and French fighter jet Rafale will be increasingly heard across the country, with the BJP and the Congress using them to target each other.

The battle lines have been drawn as Christian James Michel, the key accused in the AgustaWestland helicopter scam, was brought to Delhi from the UAE on the night of December 4. A day later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took credit for it at his election rallies in Rajasthan. “We have caught a raazdaar (insider) of the helicopter scam and brought him here. The entire family is now scared of the things which will be revealed,” said Modi, referring to Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his mother, Sonia.

Michel is a prize catch for the Modi government. While it is yet to be seen what he would tell the CBI, the extradition has given a big boost to the prime minister and his party. BJP strategists believe that it is easier to convince voters about AgustaWestland as there is an accused in the case, he is in custody and the company in question is Italian, hinting at a link to former Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

The Congress has already scored an own goal. The lawyer representing Michel in India is Aljo K. Joseph, who was with the legal department of the Indian Youth Congress. Joseph said he was representing the accused in his professional capacity, and the IYC moved swiftly to expel him from the party, but the damage had been done.

The BJP will use the scam to counter Rahul, who has been on the offensive against Modi’s anti-corruption credentials, especially over his alleged role in the Rafale deal and the escape of businessmen like Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi. When asked about Modi’s charges on the AgustaWestland case, Rahul hit back by referring to the Rafale deal. “The prime minister should explain why he gave Rs30,000 crore on Rafale to Mr Ambani,” said Rahul. The Congress, however, is worried that Michel’s revelations will hurt it in the perception battle over corruption.

Rahul has painstakingly, and often without much support from other opposition leaders, developed a narrative about the alleged irregularities in the Rafale deal, targeting Modi. The Congress president said that an investment made by Rafale manufacturer Dassault in a joint venture with its Indian offset partner, Reliance Defence, was actually a “kickback”. Michel’s extradition will refurbish Modi’s image and his potential revelations might be damaging to the Congress.

A senior Congress leader said Modi would certainly use the extradition to redeem his image. “He will claim to have brought to India an important element in the corruption in the AgustaWestland deal. You can add to it his threat of what Michel might reveal,” he said. Another Congress leader said AgustaWestland and Rafale could not be equated. He said Modi was still prime minister and answerable for the alleged irregularities in the Rafale deal, while the Congress was in the opposition, and had already paid heavily for its perceived corruption. “While the BJP and Modi are seeking fake credit without being investigated by the CBI for their own complicity and connivance, they are latching on to Michel for committing a smear campaign against opposition leaders,” said Randeep Surjewala, head of the the Congress communications department.

The AgustaWestland deal erupted into a major controversy in 2016 when an Italian court handed out punishments to the ‘bribe givers’ from the AgustaWestland company. The judgement mentioned a note, written allegedly by one of the middlemen. It is said to have a reference to Sonia Gandhi, describing her as the “driving force” behind the deal. Shortly after Michel’s arrest the Congress alleged that the Modi government had offered him a deal wherein he would be acquitted of all charges in return for implicating Sonia Gandhi in the scam.

In its defence, the Congress said the AgustaWestland deal was initiated when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister, and the decision to change the specifications of the helicopter, which led to the scam, was taken by Vajpayee’s PMO. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government had cancelled the contract in February 2013 and handed over the matter to the CBI. It blacklisted AgustaWestland on July 3, 2014. But, the blacklisting was revoked by the Modi government on August 26, 2014.

Who will win the political battle between the BJP and the Congress will be clearer in the months to come. But, certainly, the Italians and the French, too, will be waiting to see how the battle pans out in faraway lands.