The Beginning of the Middleman’s End

Christian James Michel in Delhi on December 6
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The extradition of Michel is a success for India’s investigative agencies in getting hold of people involved in high crimes

THE EXTRADITION FROM Dubai of Christian James Michel, the alleged middleman in the infamous AgustaWestland helicopter deal, marks another step forward in India’s investigation of corruption allegations that jinxed the 2010 procurement contract.

At one level, the extradition of Michel is a success for India’s investigative agencies in getting hold of people involved in high crimes who flee India and are then almost impossible to nab. In recent years, premier agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The escape of individuals wanted in the country for large financial crimes—such as VijayMallya, Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi—has cast the entire establishment in poor light. The nabbing of Michel, in that context, is good news. It shows that positive outcomes can be obtained by the country with the right kind of cooperation and attention to detail.

In Michel’s case, a lot depended on the decision of courts in Dubai. India has an extradition treaty with the United Arab Emirates that dates back to 1999. But it is not always easy to get hold of overseas fugitives even with such treaties.

For one, extradition is always a cumbersome judicial procedure. The authorities in the country where accused persons reside give them every opportunity to stay put, often all the way to a final court of appeal. Then, the treaties themselves have limiting features built into them. For example, in case criminal proceedings in the country requesting an extradition end up overdue for some reason, then it does not materialise. Finally, an individual can claim political persecution in his or her home country—a charge always easy to level—and that puts an end to everything.

None of these worked for Michel, who is alleged to have transferred €37 million from Lloyds TSB bank in Dubai. The Rs 3, 600-crore helicopter deal was signed in 2010 and was meant to provide 12 aircraft for the Indian Air Force’s communication squadron, which serves the transport needs of top-ranking politicians. In February 2013, the then Defence Minister AK Antony admitted that bribes had changed hands in the deal. Less than a year later, in January 2014, the entire deal was cancelled.

But Michel’s interrogation by the CBI is only the first step in a case that may still not see any convictions. Consider the current circumstances. It has been reported that Lloyds TSB does not exist anymore, after it was taken over by HSBC in 2011. As a result, crucial details of Michel’s accounts are not available to serve as evidence in court. That, however, is just an immediate aspect of the case.

Historically, few if any cases involving corruption in defence deals have ever come to a closure with any concrete conviction. The reasons are not hard to seek. For one, in many cases, probes have been scotched by political interference and pressure. For another, even honest investigators find it very difficult to gather evidence that often lies scattered across different countries. The process involves close cooperation between various authorities within India and abroad. It is rather easy to scuttle the process at any single end.

Secrecy is inherent in defence deals, but India’s procurement system is vexed by various complicating factors. Deal specifications can be changed, as also several other features of the process. This ‘necessitates’ middlemen who can ‘oil’ the system, so to speak. But ultimately, the buck stops with the political executive.

There are, of course, ways to reduce all these problems. For one, permitting lobbying in a legalised manner will take some sleaze out of the process, even if not all of it. But for that, the first thing that requires doing away is the morality play that kicks in at the drop of a hat. It is well known that defence deals worldwide involve furious lobbying for big-ticket products made by defence companies. India can hardly expect to keep all deals entirely insulated from lobbyists.

What needs to be kept ironclad, however, are the requirements of India’s defence forces and the timeliness of equipment delivery. The latter, at the moment, is at a total discount. This is an alarming feature of the Indian defence procurement system. India’s rivals in the region have no such handicap when they get down to getting what they want for their defence. The result is a rapidly modernising warfare environment in which India does not have the right kind of hardware, leaving its armed forces to carry on with antiquated systems.

There is no need to preen about the ‘success’ in getting hold of Michel, for there is a long legal battle ahead in which the Briton may still have the last laugh. But it has to be said that for a change all authorities in India cooperated with one another. That in itself sent a signal to Dubai that India was serious about pursuing the case.