VVIP chopper deal: PM offers debate, opposition unimpressed

With Opposition preparing to rake up the chopper scam in Parliament, PM Manmohan Singh on Monday said the government is ready to discuss the issue.

Updated: Feb 18, 2013, 23:17 PM IST

New Delhi: With the Opposition preparing to rake up the chopper scam in Parliament, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday said the government is ready to discuss the issue even as a team of CBI and Defence Ministry officials headed for Italy to collect evidence about alleged kickbacks.

Singh made it clear that the government would not shy away from debating the raging controversy over the Rs 3,600 crore deal for 12 helicopters meant to ferry Indian VVIPs.

"We can always sit down. There is scope for discussion. Parliament is a forum for discussion. We are ready to discuss all issues," Singh said when asked about the Opposition threat to stall Parliament on the "scam".

The Prime Minister was talking to reporters on the sidelines of a function in Rashtrapati Bhawan to confer the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development on noted social worker Ela Bhatt.

The BJP and Left parties have said they will raise the issue in Parliament in the upcoming Parliament session and demand answers from the government.

Singh`s comments came as a team of CBI and Defence Ministry officials headed for Italy where the alleged scam was unearthed with the arrest of Finmeccanica chief Giuseppe Orsi and AgustaWestland CEO Bruno Spagnolini last Tuesday.

The team will interact with the Italian officials from Foreign Ministry, investigative agencies and vendors including Finmeccanica to collect as much evidence as possible in the case, Defence Ministry officials said here.

Joint Secretary and Acquisition Manager (Air) Arun Kumar Bal is representing the Defence Ministry in the team.

Meanwhile, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said probe was going on at "many levels" and Letters Rogatory is the "best and strongest method" available to it for seeking details from Italian courts on the case.

Khurshid said the Indian Government has not been able to
get "concrete materials" from Italian authorities and a CBI team from here has gone to Milan in Italy to get material and details about the case.

"Our courts have to issue them and they have to be addressed by Italian courts. But it (Letters Rogatory) is the best and strongest method available to us and hope that will work," the External Affairs Minister told reporters here.

A Letters Rogatory is a formal request from a court to a foreign court for some type of judicial assistance.

"We are not able to get concrete materials from Italians. So far whatever they have done, we have reacted and responded. But up to this point they have not indicated anything. They are unable to share with us anything," Khurshid said.

He said it was little premature to reach any conclusion on the issue as the CBI team from India is there to get details.

"Our team is there to gather information and materials which can be analysed when they come," he said.

On whether the issue would be taken up with British Prime Minister David Cameron during his visit here as AgustaWestland is based in UK, Khurshid said, "No idea. I have no idea. I have not looked at the agenda.

"I know what the agenda was a week ago. I don`t know what the agenda is, is there a revised agenda at all. I would think that one prepares an agenda much before because it is shared on both sides and you can`t take any visiting dignitary by surprise.

"It will really depend upon how much consultation has taken place. And it may not necessarily be something of his level because there are many levels at which the investigations and outreach is taking place and it is only in due course that then it goes to the highest level. It may not be at his level and, as I said, I am not aware of the (revised) agenda," he said.

BJP has alleged that the government had kept Parliament in the dark over the internal probe being carried out by the Defence Ministry on the issue.

The Left parties have demanded cancellation of the contract with AgustaWestland, which has already delivered three of the 12 choppers.