Home / Politics / Policy /  Britain’s support assured in chopper probe: Singh

New Delhi: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday sought and won from his UK counterpart David Cameron an assurance of British support in investigations into alleged kickbacks paid by AgustaWestland to win a 3,600 crore contract to sell 12 helicopters to India.

“I have sought full assistance from the UK in this case. Prime Minister Cameron has assured me of the cooperation of his government in the investigations," Singh said in prepared remarks after holding talks in New Delhi with Cameron, who is on a three-day visit to India to push bilateral trade and investment links.

Singh said he had told Cameron of “our very serious concerns regarding allegations about unethical means used in securing the 2010 contract for AgustaWestland helicopters". On the domestic political front, meanwhile, his government moved to forestall expected opposition attacks on the deal when Parliament convenes this week.

The Indian government has asked AgustaWestland, a UK-based subsidiary of Italian defence manufacturer Finmeccanica SpA, to disclose by 22 February whether it had breached contractual provisions to follow ethical practices in the deal. The government sent the helicopter-maker a show-cause notice on 15 February to explain why the deal shouldn’t be cancelled if the provisions and the Integrity Pact that accompanied the contract had been violated.

India signed the pact with AgustaWestland for AW101 helicopters for the use of important government functionaries, including the President and the Prime Minister, in 2010. The deal has come under a cloud after Italian investigators arrested the chief executive officers of Finmeccanica and AgustaWestland on 12 February.

A report filed by investigators before an Italian court points to the role played by middlemen and former Indian Air Force chief S.P. Tyagi and some of his relatives. The report says that Tyagi briefed the middlemen over changes in tender conditions and kickbacks were paid to his relatives in the guise of engineering contracts. Tyagi has denied any wrongdoing.

The allegations have embarrassed the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, which has battled a series of corruption scandals after winning a second successive term in office in 2009. The latest allegations surfaced ahead of the 21 February start of Parliament’s budget session, in which the opposition plans to take on the government over the contract.

Cameron said Britain “will respond to any request for information" from the Indian government on the deal.

“I am glad that the Italian authorities are looking into this issue in detail as Finmeccanica is an Italian company... In Britain, we have introduced an anti-bribery legislation, which is probably the strongest anywhere in the world," he said.

In an interview to the BBC on Monday in Mumbai, his first stop during his India visit, Cameron defended AgustaWestland as “an excellent company, with highly skilled workers who make brilliant helicopters". He added that he was not “embarrassed that Britain has a very good defence industry. It is a perfectly legitimate business to sell to other countries that want to maintain their defences".

In the same interview, Cameron said India was “one of the great success stories of this century", adding that he believed it would be a “top three (world ) economy" by 2030.

“I want Britain to be its partner of choice, helping to build those motorways, helping to provide those universities, helping to invest in healthcare," he said.

Cameron, on his second visit to India since taking office in May 2010, also said that both countries were on their way to doubling bilateral trade to £23 billion (around 2 trillion today) by 2015. The UK prime minister, accompanied by the biggest-ever British overseas business delegation, said discussions with Singh on Tuesday had covered ways to reduce barriers to investment and trade.

He repeated commitments made by him in Mumbai that Britain would issue same-day visas for Indian businessmen and would not deny entry to Indian students who had a seat in a recognized UK university and necessary English language qualification.

Lalit Mansingh, former Indian high commissioner to Britain, said Cameron’s visit had highlighted the maturity of India-UK ties.

“The visit reaffirms ties and the strategic nature of the relationship," Mansingh said. “There were no spectacular announcements but then they were not expected. It shows the maturity of ties."

A joint statement issued after the talks on Tuesday said the two prime ministers had agreed to encourage joint investments by Indian public sector units and UK oil and gas companies in both the countries and third-party locations.

“Both countries are committed to the fight against tax evasion and avoidance and are strong proponents of transparency in tax matters," the statement said.

The reference to the fight against tax evasion assumes significance in the light of the tax dispute between the UK-based Vodafone Group Plc and Indian tax authorities over the phone company’s purchase of Hutchison Whampoa Ltd’s local mobile business in 2007.

Meanwhile, defence minister A.K. Antony said on Tuesday that the government was willing to provide Parliament details of the AgustaWestland deal. Parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath said the government was ready for any kind of debate and inquiry, including a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) investigation.

Antony also denied reports of a rift within the administration over moves to cancel the deal. The Times of India reported on Tuesday said that external affairs minister Salman Khurshid wanted the deal to go ahead while Antony wanted it scrapped. Khurshid also denied any differences with Antony over the issue on Tuesday.

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