The Bharatiya Janata Party found itself isolated in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday as virtually all political parties, including its ally Shiv Sena, which participated in the debate on the AgustaWestland bribery case focused primarily on the responsibility of the Modi government in tracking down the bribe takers instead of accusing the Congress of corruption in the purchase of VVIP helicopters.

It was widely expected that sparks would fly during the discussion on the payment of kickbacks in the purchase of VVIP helicopters. Not surprisingly, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress locked horns during the five-hour discussion as both sides flung accusations at each other. The BJP’s insinuation that Sonia Gandhi had influenced the deal was shot down by the Congress which fielded its big guns – former defence minister AK Antony, Ahmed Patel, Anand Sharma and Abhishek Singhvi – to counter the treasury benches.

The controversial helicopter deal is the latest flashpoint between the BJP and the Congress, setting the stage for another prolonged confrontation between the two political rivals. With the BJP openly targeting the Gandhi family in connection with the bribery case, the Congress has launched a counter-offensive both inside and outside Parliament.

Relief for Congress

While the arguments put forth by the BJP and the principal opposition party were on predictable lines, the Congress got some relief as speakers from other political parties did not jump in to support the Modi government’s allegation that Sonia Gandhi had benefitted from the deal. On the other hand, they charged that it was the National Democratic Alliance government that had failed to pursue the investigation into the bribery case initiated by the previous government even though it has been in power for two years. Shiv Sena member Sanjay Raut also asked the government to complete the investigation at the earliest but BJP partner Akali Dal took a conscious decision not to participate in the debate, with a party leader stating privately that they did not wish to fight the BJP’s battles.

Urging the BJP to desist from making allegations and destroying reputations, practically all opposition leaders told the ruling party that instead of politicising the issue of corruption, it should ensure that the probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation is completed in a given time-frame. In what was seen as a vote of no confidence in the Modi government, they also demanded that the CBI enquiry should be monitored by the Supreme Court. Predictably, the demand was rejected by the government resulting in a walk-out by the opposition members.

From Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal (U) and Samajwadi Party leader Ram Gopal Yadav to Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati and D.Raja of the CPI, they all argued that the ongoing discussion was premature and that it should have been held only after the CBI had completed its enquiry and the identity of the bribe takers had been revealed. While repeatedly asking the NDA government to complete the probe at the earliest under the supervision of the apex court, Mayawati expressed her reservations about a fair investigation, stating that the CBI was invariably influenced by the government in power. This sentiment was echoed by the other speakers subsequently.

The battle lines between the BJP and the Congress were drawn from the beginning of the debate. The tone was set by BJP’s Bhupendra Yadav who quoted extensively from a CAG report to accuse the previous United Progressive Alliance government of deliberately altering the requirements to favour AgustaWestland for the purchase of the VVIP helicopters. His charges were substantiated by Subramaniam Swamy, who maintained that the politicians and officials named in the case can be prosecuted under the Prevention of Corruption Act and promised that the names of those who got the money in the deal will be revealed within the next three years.

Resignation offer

The BJP allegations were fiercely contested by the Congress. Party president’s political secretary Ahmed Patel, whose name has figured in connection with the bribery case, made a rare intervention during the debate. Known to be low-key and reticent, an emotional Patel declared that he would resign his seat in the Rajya Sabha and quit public life if the charges against him are proved.

While Singhvi pointed out that the mere mention of the names of their party leaders in an unsigned document was not tantamount to an indictment, Antony reiterated that it was the Vajpayee government which changed the required parameters for the purchase of the helicopters and that the UPA government had wasted no time in ordering a CBI probe once allegations of bribery and wrong-doing surfaced. Stating that the UPA government had done no wrong, an unusually combative Antony admonished the BJP “Don’t try to create doubts, you will not succeed. Don’t politicise, you will repent. If you have all evidence, take strong action. But don’t threaten and don’t blackmail,” he said.

Reading from a lengthy speech, defence minister Manohar Parrikar provided extensive technical details to suggest that the probe into the Rs.36,000 crore deal for the purchase of 12 VVIP helicopters was prevented by an “invisible hand”, a clear reference to Sonia Gandhi. Stating that there was a relentless push for the AgustaWestland helicopters by the UPA government, Parrikar also said that the names figuring in the Italian court’s papers would be investigated.