NEW DELHI: Anybody who sells any system, product or service to any organization that purportedly has an “open and transparent” method of making a choice knows that the first thing to fix to get the business is to get specifications set to suit them exclusively.

The Agusta Westland deal, like all other deals whether for paper clips or nuclear power plants, almost certainly involved fixes. But before we get to that some background will serve you well. It began with the peripatetic George Fernandes, the NDA-1 defence minister, making frequent and highly publicized visits to meet the jawans manning the Saltoro ridgeline in the Siachen sector. This involved precarious flights on aging IAF Cheetah helicopters.

The Cheetahs were license built Aerospatiale Alouette II SA 315B Lama helicopters of mid 1950’s vintage. A Cheetah can carry up to five persons in a tight squeeze and has a range of about 300 nautical miles and a maximum speed of 103 knots. It is powered by a single Turbomeca TM 333-2M2 engine, which has just about in it to make it to the Saltoro, passes. It still flies, but since their induction in 1968, 191 Chetaks and Cheetahs have crashed killing 294 personnel. In 1963 an imported Cheetah crash took the lives of four senior military officers including Lt.Gen. Daulet Singh, GOC-in-C, Western Command, Lt.Gen. Bikram Singh GOC 15th Corps, Maj.Gen. KND Nanavati GOC 25 Infantry Division and AVM EW Pinto, AOC, Western Command.

Some years ago I flew in a Cheetah from Leh to the Partapur headquarters of the Siachen brigade. I distinctly recall that a string fastened the Plexiglas door and the chopper struggled to make it past Khardungla. We had to get back before afternoon thermals thinned the air. Clearly it was inadequate and only pilot skills and the doughty grit of IAF and Army engineers have kept them going.

The Mi-8's (Hip) first flew in 1958 and has for long have been obsolete and have taken their share of the toll. Among those killed in a Mi-8 crash was a GOC-in-C of the Eastern Command, Lt. Gen. Jameel Mahmood, who was slated to become COAS. Those of us who have been ferried ina Mi-8 know it to be a bone chilling experience. No wonder Christian Michel, purportedly advising Agusta Westland, could confidently tell his principals that Mrs. Sonia Gandhi "will no longer fly in the Mi-8."

With Fernandes making frequent trips, the IAF with its keen instinct for acquisition saw an opportunity to augment its high altitude capable fleet of helicopters. What more sacred cows can there be than our aging ministers? So a request was made to the government (remember the services are not part of government) for a squadron of new VIP helicopters to make the Cheetah and the equally aging Russian Mi-8 helicopters redundant.

The IAF then preferred the Eurocopter EC225 Super Puma as the replacement. This is twin-engined a long-range passenger transport helicopter that can carry up to 24 passengers along with three crew. It had a service height ceiling of 6000 meters. It was the only helicopter of its kind with this ceiling, others being limited to 4500 meters.

This was when and where the fix was made. According to the MoD, "On November 19, 2003 a meeting was taken by then Principal Secretary to PM (Brajesh Mishra, also NSA) on this subject. In the meeting, Principal Secretary observed that his main concern was that the framing of the mandatory requirements has led us effectively into a single vendor situation. It was also noted that the PM and President have rarely made visits to places involving flying at an altitude beyond 4,500 meters. In the meeting it was decided to make the mandatory requirement for operational altitude 4,500 meters. The higher flying ceiling of 6,000 meters, and a cabinet height of 1.8 meters could be made desirable operational requirements. It was observed that with these revisions, several helicopters which otherwise met all requirements but had been rejected due to the altitude restriction, would now come into the reckoning."

The all-powerful Brajesh Mishra followed up this meeting with a letter on December 22, 2003 to the IAF Chief (Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy) wherein he chastised, “that it was unfortunate that neither PMO nor SPG was consulted while framing these mandatory requirements.” He then ordered that the Air Chief and Defence Secretary “to jointly review the matter to draw up realistic mandatory requirements satisfying operational, security and convenience requirements of VIPs and also set in motion a fast track process for selection and acquisition of the replacement helicopters." This was done.

Now let’s meet the three Tyagi brothers, Sanjeev (Julie), Sandeep and Rajiv (Docsa), who also happen to be the cousins of Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi, who became Chief of Air staff in 2005 and retired in 2007. It is important to remember SP Tyagi, a distinguished fighter pilot (call sign Bundle), was Air Chief neither when the specifications were changed in 2003 nor when the order was placed in 2009.

The Tyagi brothers became representatives of AgustaWestland, owned by the Italian government’s Finmeccanica (now renamed Leonardo group) in 1996. They were reasonably well known in certain Delhi circles where high value things are made to happen. The youngest, Docsa (doctor sahib) was a medical doctor who found another practice more suited to him. He was at one time Amitabh Bachchan’s political aide. We all know Bachchan had a penchant for sharp business deals and Docsa obviously learnt well. He was a standard fixture at the Taj Mahal Hotel on Mansingh Road.

After Bachchan quit politics, Docsa got into Atal Behari Vajpayee’s circle. Soon he was running errands for him in the Lucknow Lok Sabha constituency where he was reported to be the main liaison with the local Muslim community. Vajpayee’s “foster” son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya was the man who managed the affairs pertaining to Lucknow and quite clearly Docsa and he were closely associated. Bhattacharya’s power and influence in the Vajpayee era is well known and widely recorded.

Thanks to these connections the IAF’s preferred Eurocopter EC225 was no longer to be the sole option. A miffed Eurocopter opted out. This is how the Agusta Westland EH-101 and Sikorsky S- 92 came into the reckoning. But it was a no contest between them. For a start the Agusta has three engines, one of which was an auxiliary to kick in more power in a drift down situation. It also had a cabin height of 1.83 meters, something that the SPG insisted, as the guards could be standing upright with drawn weapons in the cabin during landing and take-off.

Now as far as the corruption goes. The usual narrative is that nothing happens in India without below the table payments. But what is less known, is that this is often the pretext for managements of foreign companies to make some big money for themselves. I have always held that Indian politicians and bureaucrats are the bottom feeders in the crooking pool. Service officers are satisfied with even less. Recall the infamous Tehelka video of a general asking for a Johnny Walker Blue Label whisky bottle?

The Hinduja’s, Nanda's and Chowdhrie's usually make much more money for themselves and their foreign associates and fob off their Indian connections with small change. At the time of writing investigations have begun in the UK of a Panama company owned by a well known arms agent making payments to a top executive of a British aircraft company.

Their efforts fetched the three Tyagi brothers about Rs.11 crores, while a bigger payment track of over Rs.300 crores led to the Italian and Indian owners of two dummy companies in Tunisia and India, and to a flim-flam man called Christian Michel, the son of Wolfgang Michel who figured in the Mirage and Bofors deals, incidentally both during the Rajiv Gandhi tenure. Does this lead to another son-in-law? Wait and see.

Much is being made off by the BJP about the Milan Court of Appeals judgment convicting Giuseppe Orsi and Bruno Spagnolini, the CEO’s of Finmeccanica and AgustaWestland respectively for “false accounting and corruption” in which the judges referred to an unsigned note purportedly by Christian Michel. This refers to Sonia Gandhi and the then PM among others. But an unsigned note has no evidentiary value. This was the basis for dismissing the charges against LK Advani and others in the Jain Hawala Case. The BJP is now conveniently forgetting this. This is politics. Selective memories and far-fetched conjectures.