A joint parliamentary committee (JPC) will probe the purchase of 12 VVIP helicopters, it was decided while Defence Minister A.K. Antony Wednesday promised to punish the guilty for the alleged kickbacks. The opposition parties, however, walked out of the Rajya Sabha alleging inaction for over a year.
The motion to set up the joint parliamentary committee (JPC) took the opposition by surprise, but was adopted by the Rajya Sabha despite oposition walk-out, including by the BJP.
Earlier, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath moved the motion at the end of a short-duration discussion on the $750 million/Rs.3,600-crore deal for the helicopters with AgustaWestland by the defence ministry.
The move to set up the JPC was opposed by several opposition parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Telugu Desam Party, Janata Dal-United and Trinamool Congress.
The Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party backed the decision on the JPC.
Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley said the JPC will be an "exercise in futility" and its setting up was a "diversionary tactic" by the government.
He said what was needed was a proper case and custodial interrogation of people to get to the truth and the JPC had none of these powers.
Defending the government's decision, Kamal Nath said the JPC will monitor the investigations of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and accused the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance of "running away from JPC".
Kamal Nath said the opposition had not allowed an entire session to function over its demand earlier for a JPC on the 2G spectrum controversy.
He said the JPC will have 30 members, including 10 from the Rajya Sabha and 20 from the Lok Sabha.
The minister said JPC will inquire into the alleged payment of bribes in the deal and role of middlemen.
He said the JPC will give its report within three months of its first sitting. He announced names of seven of 10 house members and said names of three others will be decided later.
The opposition parties, including the BJP, staged a walk-out before the voice vote on the motion for setting up the JPC.
The Rajya Sabha earlier saw a fierce debate with the BJP members accusing the government of inaction despite information about alleged kickbacks being in the public domain for almost a year.
In his reply, Antony said the government will get to the root of scams involving public money and punish the guilty.
Antony said he felt ashamed as a minister on any controversy surrounding the defence ministry.
He said the ministry had acted on every complaint it received and there was no cover-up.
Recalling the efforts made by his ministry to get details after the controversy erupted last year, he said the Italian government informed that the investigations were at preliminary stage and covered by secrecy.
He said the CBI team that went to Italy met the prosecutors and the judge in the case and were told of the secrecy clause.
Antony said the Italian authorities will complete their inquiry in the coming months.
The minister said AgustaWestland had denied any wrongdoings in its reply to the ministry's show cause notice but the defence ministry did not believe their reply.
He said the government will take strongest action after getting a report from the CBI.
"I want to know the truth. I must pursue the case," Antony said, adding that however powerful the guilty may be, he would be found out.
Rebutting Antony, Jaitley said the only remaining issue concerning the kickbacks was of "knowing identity of bribe taker".
"The government of India places order. The bribe-taker cannot be sitting elsewhere," Jaitley said and added that the bribes had "travelled back" to India.
He said India could not ask for extradition of foreign middlemen without a first information report and cannot send letter regoratory.
"You waited for 365 days before registering preliminary enquiry (PE)," Jaitley said and added that a preliminary enquiry was only an informal method to obtain information as it did not allow for raid and custodial interrogation. He sought registration of FIR by CBI.
Jaitley asked the government if it was ready for a JPC headed by an opposition member.
The PE was registered by the CBI Monday against 11 people, including former Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi and four companies.
The firms named by the CBI in the PE included Italy-based Finmeccanica, its subsidiray AgustaWestland, IDS Infotech Ltd. (India) and Aeromatrix India.
Asked about party's opposition to the JPC, BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters that an FIR had not been registered in the chopper deal case.
He said the party had demanded a JPC probe into the 2G spectrum issue after an FIR had been registered and court was monitoring the investigation.
"A JPC without FIR, without court monitoring is humbug," he said.