Media cannot be prosecutor, judge and jury.

Media trial on AgustaWestland Criminality is established but can the money be traced
Voices Opinion Friday, May 06, 2016 - 15:17

Italian appellate court judge Marco Maria Maiga must be flummoxed by his fame in India. We in the media asked him in many different ways if Indian politicians were bribed in the AgustaWestland deal. In particular, what was the role of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and her political secretary Ahmed Patel?

The judge, not an Anglophone, replied as best he could that he doesn’t know because he had received no cooperation from India. Latin languages (in this case Italian) are not as direct as English. There is scope for deep understanding between the lines as well as grave misunderstanding. The story is not what the judge did not say i.e. confirm a hypothesis of high political involvement in the bribes. The story is the lack of cooperation from New Delhi when the bribes came to light, first in the Italian media and then in India.  Whose interests were being protected by this lack of cooperation by the then UPA government?

On the critical issue of non-cooperation the Italian judge was unequivocal – he had no assistance from India. Further investigation was necessary, he said, adding that it was the job of Indian authorities. He would be happy to cooperate. Rajya Sabha member and legal luminary Dr. Subramaniam Swamy who led the charge in parliament made the same point in one of his interviews. There is a hypothesis, there are leads, some very solid ones, and it is for Indian courts to prove or disprove all. He is right. That is the job of Indian courts. We in the media cannot usurp a role that is not ours. The line between reporting, analysing, question and accusing is a fine one.

For its part, in the eagerness to link the bribes to members of the Congress party, the BJP-led NDA government runs the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There are questions about them as well, especially the tardiness in cutting to chase with or independently through an Indian investigation. Why this government didn’t find ways to cooperate with the Italian investigation needs an answer. Key middleman Guido Ralph Hashcke had been extradited to Italy in October 2013, seven months before the change of government in Delhi.

The story so far is this. Criminality and bribes have been established in the helicopter deal. All agree. Middlemen were involved and there was unexplained and massive price escalation – this has a direct impact on the percentage of the bribe. All agree. Technical specifications were altered to favour one manufacturer. All agree. There are references in the money trail suggesting that political payments of a very high nature may have been made to the then ruling party i.e. the Congress. This is where the disagreement begins.

The Congress is clearly on the back foot here. Is this their Achilles’ heel one that can explain non - cooperation with Italy? Caught between facts, lies and hypothesis came performances of Congress lawmakers in parliament when the issue was debated. The country was treated to high drama when Ahmad Patel said he would walk into political wilderness if there were an iota of truth about his being on the take. Former Minister of Defence (MOD) A.K. Anthony almost choked as he said he got cracking the moment he got whiff of wrongdoing. Anand Sharma was beside himself trying to prove that it was all a dark controversy and scored an auto goal by holding out a tit-for-tat threat. All three men are considered close to UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and the powerful satellites around her.

If the Congress party was on terra firma there was no need to hold a hurriedly called meeting of key functionaries following the Italian verdict which sent officials of AgustaWestland and its parent company Finmeccanica to jail. If middleman Guido Ralphe Hashcke’s notes with telling initials and corresponding bribes were irrelevant, there would be no ruckus in parliament. The Congress party is past master at attacking anyone who attacks them or the Gandhi family. It is surprising no one has offered to slit their wrists in their defence this time.

The payment track or tracing the money trail must not be allowed to degenerate in the media. We have a responsibility to stick to the straight and narrow – the blocking of Italian enquiry - leaving the court battle to the government. Major television networks have all claimed exclusives with the Italian judge who has said the same thing to all.  He cannot give anyone clean chits. That doesn’t mean guilt or not guilty. It means that question was not in his remit. How difficult is that to understand? And can we please stop interviewing anybody and everybody who can spell helicopter? By this shadowboxing, we run the risk of placing the bribe takers and bribe givers on the same platform as those who are questioning them. If this were to happen, we would have abdicated our role as watchdogs.

The Congress party is more sophisticated than the BJP when it comes to media management. Their work is deep. In fact, they can and have managed the media for all political parties thereby snatching the narrative. A red herring was let out last week when it was reported that Christian Michel – believed to be major player – was willing to turn approver. He subsequently changed that to say he has nothing to hide and is working with his Indian lawyers to tell his version. As for the money to influence the media, he said that was “slightly exaggerated.” How much is slightly? On whose side is he now? Waters are being deliberately muddied and more often than not, the BJP and its spokespeople are walking into most traps.

By their drama, dithering and demagogy, the Congress party has partly succeeded in shifting the onus on to the Narendra Modi-led coalition to prove their guilt. There is only one way for the government to go now. Prove the liars, all liars wrong. Not in television studios with high school level debates but in an Indian court. First question can be – why would an innocent government not cooperate with the Italian investigation? Or, if Rajiv Gandhi had nothing to hide in Bofors, what was the need for the massive three-country cover-up? Three countries then, three countries now – follow the money.

 

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