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A Tribune Exclusive
Bush lobbied for Boeing with Vajpayee
Swati Chaturvedi
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, September 5
Governments come and governments go but the aircraft manufacturer Boeing goes on. While cutthroat lobbying and competition by the aircraft companies vying for the more that Rs 20,000-crore aircraft acquisition contract for the two national carriers Air-India and Indian Airlines is well known; it now transpires that US President George Bush had called the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to lobby for Boeing after IA shortlisted rival Airbus.

This is not all. Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice were constantly lobbying with Jaswant Singh and Brijesh Mishra in order to ensure that Boeing secure the aircraft contract.

The then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh obligingly even got the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to pass a resolution saying that all big-ticket purchases should be considered “on geo-political grounds,” jargon for “give the Americans a helping hand”.

The twist in the tale comes after the NDA lost the elections and the UPA government, which went to town about the NDA’s cosy relations with the US, took office. Aviation Minister Praful Patel last week asked the national carriers in a demiofficial letter to “have a re-look at their final proposal for aircraft acquisition, since the proposal has been pending for four years and requirements may have changed.”

This innocuous sounding suggestion effectively derails the entire process since the original proposal, based on a technical committee report after board clearance, has already cleared the hurdle of the Planning Commission and even the Finance Ministry. This process has taken two years and the proposed purchase would have been at the Pre-Public Investment board (PIB) stage next week. The PIB clearance is the last stage of the buying process.

Says a senior official: “aircraft are not three-wheelers or washing machines, which become obsolete after three years. They are brought for a minimum of 20 years after taking all technical and growth requirements into account. In any case, an aircraft’s life depends upon the number of take-offs and landings and not age. To suggest that the whole process be done again is ridiculous”.

Interestingly, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had in written directions to all ministers said that they should not interfere in the working of the public sector undertakings. Mr Patel’s letter is in clear violation since the boards of Air-India and Indian Airlines should be competent to decide the choice of aircraft.

When contacted by The Tribune, Mr Patel maintained that he had only asked for a fresh look and it would only delay the process by a month. After taking office, Mr Patel had stated that the only way to revive the carriers was to buy new aircraft and he would do everything to expedite the process.

As an aside, even the new open skies policy announced by the US is not going to benefit India since their carriers will get extra seats while, due to lack of capacity, Air-India will not benefit. The last time the national carriers bought aircraft was 15 years ago.

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