Former air force chief S P Tyagi: A man in the wrong or a wronged man?

Last Updated: Sat, Feb 23, 2013 04:30 hrs

Is former air force chief S P Tyagi a man in the wrong or is he a wronged man? Aditi Phadnis says while the jury is still out on that, those who know him swear by him.

All Indian Air Force (IAF) pilots have nicknames. Air Marshal OP Mehra was known as Polly and Air Marshal NAK Browne is called Charlie. 

Air Marshal Shashindra Pal Tyagi is Bundles. 

The nicknames are meant to ease staccato air chatter (imagine if during ground communications, staffers were to say: Shashindra Pal, you are going off course'). 

In the current context, where sackfulls of money are alleged to have changed hands on Tyagi's watch, Bundles is a singularly unfortunate nickname to have. But a jury of his peers says Air Marshal Tyagi, chief of air staff from 2004 to 2007, simply could not have taken a bribe. Even if he could have, he wouldn't have.

The story is now well known. AgustaWestland, a subsidiary of Finmeccanica of Italy, is alleged to have paid bribes to procure the order to supply 12 helicopters to the government of India to replace the Soviet-built Mi8 which have to be phased out latest by 2014. Negotiations began in 2000 and because specifications were so precise, only the Eurocopter qualified, causing a single-vendor situation. 

Then principal secretary to the prime minister, Brajesh Mishra, said this was to be avoided at all costs, and specs were lowered to make the deal more competitive.

This left just two big players in the field: Finmeccanica's AgustaWestland (the AW-1O1), an Anglo-Italian aircraft; and the American firm Sikorsky's S 92 Superhawk. In 2010, after the field trials had been concluded and AgustaWestland was found to be the better aircraft, Sikorsky put in a complaint that it hadn't got a debriefing on certain concessions' given to each side during the technical bids stage and that it felt the trials had been unfair. 

It followed this up with a legal notice to the Ministry of Defence. Now that you look back on it, something about the deal was already smelling bad. But the gripes were put down to the usual noises made by rivals who'd lost out on the contract. Where does Tyagi figure in all this? Nowhere, if you go by what he is saying. "Staff qualitative requirements for the VVIP choppers were frozen in 2003, much before I assumed office of Chief of Air Staff and IAF did not change any requirements after that," Tyagi has said.

Take a look at his service record: he has been a first class professional, but has never had a job that has ever had anything to do with procurement, his colleagues say. The last point of procurement-related decision/advice in IAF is the deputy chief of air staff. Tyagi has never held this office. Below this are six other officers. 

He has never held any of those appointments either. "I have been hit by a thunderstorm" Tyagi has said.

The thunderstorm was the court testimony of a Finmeccanica staff, on the strength of which the CEO of the company, Giuseppe Orsi, was arrested and other contractors were questioned. Two of these contractors were Carlo Gerosa and Guido Haschke, listed as AgustaWestland middlemen. Tyagi ought to have known, but says he didn't, that three of his cousins, Rajiv, Sanjeev (alias Julie) and Docsa Tyagi, were in touch with Gerosa and Haschke, and had, leveraging on the strength of their relationship with the chief of air staff, made large sums of money off AgustaWestland. 

That payments were made to the Europeans for work "in the South Asian subcontinent" was confirmed by Orsi, the boss of the company, to the Italian equivalent of the Comptroller & Auditor general, but he also told the Italian watchdogs that this money was "unrelated to Indian helicopter deal". Italian investigators say that €30 million, or Rs 217 crore, were paid as kickbacks, and €100,000, or Rs 70 lakh, were paid in cash to Julie Tyagi.

That there was contact between the three Tyagi brothers and Air Marshal Tyagi has been established. Gerosa's testimony says he met Air Marshal Tyagi with his cousins. Tyagi does not deny this. It is also a fact that Air Marshal Tyagi was not a disinterested observer once he retired from the Air Force. 

Unlike his counterpart, then Chief of Army Staff Gen S Padmanabhan, who now lives in Chennai, has staunchly refused all government or private sector office and occupies himself writing storybooks for children, Tyagi was on the boards of several companies. He resigned from one of those, Zuari, which has nothing to do with IAF, earlier this week. But in 2011, he joined a consultancy firm, Williams Global Advisors, as founding director. The firm provides consultancy in the aviation and aerospace sector. His name does not figure on the website any more but it was there till a few weeks ago.

And this is the problem, this post-retirement syndrome. Bharat Earth Movers contracted with Tatra, a European truck manufacturing entity, on terms that pushed up the cost of the trucks enormously. Tatra was full of former officers of the Indian defence services who used their networks in the services to secure orders for their company. 

In this instant case, Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak hotly contests suggestion that there was anything improper in Tyagi's dealings. "Time was when we would end our career in IAF, settle down in Dehradun or Jodhpur or wherever and play golf or grow roses. But that time is gone. Today, you are encouraged to work, study, even resume flying, after retirement. But there is a cooling off period and you have to inform the government what you're doing. I'm sure Bundles would have done this".

That said, Tyagi is widely considered a wonderful chap', even if he has controversial relatives'. Former Defence Minister Jaswant Singh says: "I had a cousin, who was a smuggler; he used to smuggle alcohol and cigarettes to Pakistan across the Rajasthan border in return for gold. One day, he lost his life in a jeep accident and I am bringing up his children. Does that make me a smuggler?" Singh has defended Air Marshal Tyagi full-throatedly. His argument is that the chief of staff — Army, Navy or Air Force — epitomises that service because he is the head of it. 

"A charge against a Chief sullies, in a fashion, the entire service and that causes a great loss of morale in the fighting force". He says he doesn't know Tyagi personally, but "I do believe that to start condemning a chief of air staff without proper scrutiny or investigation in the current competition for TRPs, this tendency towards instant justice and immediate conclusions is most unfair and entirely wrong".

That Tyagi has had a brilliant career goes without saying: he did after all, make it to chief. He was sent to the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington as a student. When he finished the course, he was adjudged good enough to be made an instructor straightaway. He was one of the few officers to have been sent to the UK to train to fly the Jaguar and later became the commanding office of the Jaguar Squadron. He has the distinction of having flown several types of fighter and transport aircraft and has logged over 3,000 flying hours. 

His combat experience includes combat air patrols as well as strike and interdiction missions during the 1965 Indo-Pak war. In the 1971 war, he flew the MiG-21 on air defence missions. After retirement, he was drafted on the semi-official Track Two Ottawa Process where he acted as the eyes and ears of the government of India in a military-to-military engagement with the defence community of Pakistan.

A little known fact about Tyagi is his passion for Indian classical music. He was born in Indore, and nearby Dewas was the home town of Kumar Gandharva, so Tyagi could not have been untouched by the spirituality of music.

He is a ready wit. "Soon I will stop saying we are going to get a jet trainer soon," he joked with reporters in 2006, when the government went on delaying the acquisition of an Advanced Jet Trainer. When Pranab Mukherjee prepared to move out of the Ministry of Defence, he walked into the minister's room and said: "Sir, you might be leaving us, but we will not leave you".

Jaswant Singh says it is in everybody's interest to have this matter sorted out as soon as possible. He notes that Air Marshal Tyagi has said repeatedly he is ready for a probe. For Defence Minister A K Antony, the Finmeccanica deal is his trial by fire. It is Antony's determination to have responsibility fixed for bribe-taking that will see the quick culmination of an inquiry. Air Marshal Tyagi's friends are certain he will be found blameless.

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