The full story of how Margaret Thatcher’s government more or less bullied India into buying technically flawed Westland helicopters in 1985 is revealed in British government documents released recently by the National Archives.
Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother Indira Gandhi as India’s prime minister following her assassination in 1984, had been a pilot with Indian Airlines. He suspected the helicopters would not be suitable for operating in hot and humid weather.
But using strong-arm tactics, Britain forced him to buy 21 of the Westland “W30” models at a cost of £65 million for use by the ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Corporation) in Bombay High, India’s off-shore oil industry.
To be sure, the money came from British aid to India, but it was tied to the purchase of the helicopters. Rajiv was warned that if he did not buy the aircraft, he would be punished by having the aid budget for India trimmed and the money given to another country more willing to buy British goods.
Aid did not mean India could use the money as it saw fit. It had to use the funds to prop up British jobs and industry – even if the goods supplied were faulty.
Rajiv’s fears about the helicopters proved well founded. They could not be deployed in Indian conditions and in the end lay rusting in the Indian sun. Ultimately, Britain agreed to take back the helicopters, but only as scrap metal that was valued at £900,000.
What Rajiv did not know was at the time he was being persuaded to take delivery of the Westland helicopters, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was refusing to accept them as replacement for its own ageing Puma and Wessex fleets. What was good for India wasn’t necessarily good for Britain, the archives reveal.
They also demonstrate just how difficult it is for Britain to adopt an ethical foreign policy when British jobs and commercial interests are at stake.
Mrs Thatcher herself was under pressure to ensure that both India – as well as the RAF – bought Westland.
In India, some defence experts favoured the French Dauphin helicopter and it seemed the RAF, too, was more inclined to buy either from the United States or from France.
A letter written to Mrs Thatcher on February 27, 1985, by one E Abram was passed to her.
It read: “I am one of 11,000 people employed by Westland Helicopters plc. At the moment we have a job of work to do but unfortunately because of your lack of foresight and support, we could all be on the dole by the end of the year…think again Mrs Thatcher – we need that order.
“If the world sees that you have the confidence to buy Westland helicopters for our mighty forces they will think to themselves, it must be the best, and so other countries will want to buy from us as well. ...Confidence is the word Maggie, you have said it often enough. Now prove it.”
Mrs Thatcher had talks in Moscow with Rajiv on March 13, 1985, when the British side noted his objections to a deal which had been initialled when Mrs Gandhi was prime minister.
“Mr Gandhi said that ‘the technical chaps’ were giving problems,” the memo read. “They preferred a French helicopter. The Westland one was too big and consumed more fuel, though it was cheaper to operate per seat. The real trouble was that it did not quite meet the particular needs and it was an untried model.”
On returning to London, Mrs Thatcher wrote to Rajiv on March 22, 1985: “You referred in Moscow to technical objections to buying Westland helicopters. When the government of India decided last July to buy the Westlands aircraft, it was only after a thorough evaluation which considered all the technical merits and demerits of rival helicopters, including those you outlined to me.”
She pointed out that Westland plc, assuming the contract was in the bag, had made modifications.
“In short, Westlands have incurred considerable expenditure in good faith,” Mrs Thatcher went on. “I am worried if they were to lose the contract at this very late stage there would be widespread concern here, and confidence among those doing business with India could be damaged.”
Mrs Thatcher hinted that aid to India could be cut. “We mentioned the aid programme aspect when we met. £45 million, out of a total of £115 million allocated to India in 1985/86, is earmarked by both our governments expressly for the Westlands projects, and £20 million in 1986/87. This is an arrangement which I have authorised at the government of India’s request after the most careful consideration.
“We would be faced with very considerable political and practical difficulties if the Westlands project were not now concluded,” she added. “I do hope we can stand by what was agreed.”
Rajiv said he would take “another look” at the project when he got home.
Mrs Thatcher received a letter from Lord Aldington, chairman of Westland plc, who said his company had been on the verge of signing the contract when Indira was assassinated.
He described the financial consequences of a delay or cancellation. “The helicopters are in advanced stage of production,” he emphasised. “I am sure that only you can persuade Rajiv Gandhi .... long-standing relations between British firms and India should not suffer.”
Mrs Thatcher’s transport secretary Nicholas Ridley paid a visit to India from April 9-20, 1985, and circulated his thoughts on the subject in a memo on April 30, 1985.
He said the Indians wanted transfer of technology from Britain to India and commented: “We live, in many areas of trading, on our technological advantages and we need to extract some price in money and UK employment as a quid pro quo.”
He also said India wanted the British government to provide subsidies on commercial contracts as some other countries were doing: “If this is the way the game is to be played, we must make sure our aid is increasingly available to bolster specific deals rather than for general philanthropy.”
Whatever his mother might have thought, Rajiv had grave misgivings about Westland.
From Delhi, the British high commissioner Sir Robert Wade-Gery reported on April 23, 1985: “The indications appear to be that Gandhi has decided not to buy this helicopter and is a seeking a reason for turning it down.”
On April 29, 1985, the high commissioner recounted a 15-minute meeting between Rajiv and the visiting minister for overseas development and foreign office minister of state, Timothy Raison.
His telegram read: “Mr Raison mentioned the Westland problem. Gandhi replied that the W30 did not appear to meet India’s requirements. If he rightly recalled the figures, it needed, if any one engine failed, to cut the required payload by over 200 lbs in order to get the necessary lifting in hot weather with full safety. This meant it could only carry six men.
“The Dauphin in such circumstances could carry ten… the one-engine performance of the French helicopter was superior in other respects: this was important, given the 400ft hills near Bombay and on the same coast 7,000ft ft hills behind Cochin.
“Mr Raison also stressed the difficulties which would arise for the aid programme if GOI (Government of India) were to abandon at this late stage a project to which they themselves had asked for such a large amount of British aid money to be dedicated.”
Wade-Gery reported on May 10, 1985, on a meeting with Capt A Bassein, deputy managing director of Indian Airlines and tipped for the job of first chairman of the Helicopter Corporation (which would take the final decision on Westland).
The telegram read: “He said that the prime minister, who he had known a long time (as Rajiv had been a pilot for Indian Airlines) and who had consulted him on helicopters, was genuinely concerned at various technical aspects of the W30. Bassein would not go into detail but said the PM was very unhappy at the sloppy way in which the Indian Air Force had carried out its evaluation. As a result of this, two officers had lost their jobs.”
Summing up for the British government, the foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe produced a “let’s punish India” confidential memo on May 13, 1985, for Mrs Thatcher. It highlighted how pragmatism had to take precedence over principle.
“As we agreed when we discussed the problem last week, Rajiv Gandhi’s comments to the Indian Parliament ....leave little room for doubt that he has made up his mind against the Westland Helicopters,” Howe began.
As Britain had allocated £115m for aid in 1985/86, “we should therefore make it clear to the Indians that any reduction in this aid programme is an inescapable consequence of their own decision on the Westlands contract”.
“What reduction should we make in the Indian programme?” Howe wondered. “I propose that we should aim to reduce it by £25m this year…there is no presumption in my mind that it should necessarily return to the earlier level: but we must recognise that the Indians will put what pressure they can on us to reinstate it from next year.”
Norman Tebbit, the trade and industry secretary, was also all for putting the boot into India.
His memo of May 21, 1985, read: “I have seen Geoffrey Howe’s minute of 13 May. I agree that we should now think of the consequences of the WG30 contract not proceeding. ... I share Geoffrey Howe’s view that there should be a reduction in the Indian programme for 1985/86 without jeopardising normal commercial relation and avoiding a major row.”
He made an important philosophical point – that aid need not be given as a cash grant. He wanted to “try to adjust some of the expectations that the Indians have built up on the operation of our aid programme…the belief that our aid will always be in 100 per cent cash grant form. ...This is not necessarily the way other countries’ aid to India is provided.”
Mrs Thatcher’s private secretary, Charles (now Lord) Powell, summed up the options for the prime minister in a note on May 13, 1985: “The proposal is: to dock the aid programme by £25m this year (if the Westlands order finally collapses); not necessarily to reinstate it next year; to make clear to the Indians that this is the inevitable result of the Indians’ own action; to use the money for unspecified news bids, including Indonesia.”
Mrs Thatcher’s response is reflected in Powell’s reply to Howe’s memo: “The Prime Minister has considered the Foreign Secretary’s minute of 13 May on this subject. She is broadly content with the proposals set out in it but would like to have a clearer picture of precisely how the £25 million which would be available if the Westland contract is finally lost would be allocated.”
India did buy the helicopters, but the deal proved to be a total disaster.
As an epilogue, the Guardian reported on October 18, 2000: “India has sold its entire fleet of Westland helicopters back to Britain for the scrap value of just £900,000, nine years after the machines were found to be technically faulty and grounded. ..... nine of the 19 helicopters acquired by India for £65m in the mid-1980s have been shipped back to the UK to be stripped down for spare parts. The second and final consignment is expected to leave Bombay by the end of the year.”
The paper said: “India’s state-owned helicopter firm, Pawan Hans Helicopters, which operated the Westland 30s, dispatched the first shipment to AES Aerospace, a British firm based in West Sussex, in July. The flawed machines had spent the previous eight years rusting in crates at New Delhi’s Safdarjung airport.”
The 14-seater Westland 30s proved to be highly unreliable and a commercial disaster, the paper stated. Soon after their arrival in India in 1987, two crashed – one in the north Indian state of Jammu, and another in Nagaland, killing 10 people. They proved to be unsuited to the tropical climate, needed constant servicing and repairs, and were flown only sporadically.
A spokesman for Westland helicopters admitted to the Guardian that sales of the W30s had been “mediocre”. The helicopter, a civilian version of the Lynx, was no longer in production after the civil aviation authority withdrew its licence.
In 1997, the international development secretary, Clare Short, ordered an inquiry into the helicopter deal, which she described as “outrageous”. She criticised Lady Thatcher’s role in the affair, saying it showed the importance of de-linking aid from political considerations.
This, however, was not the last time that Westland helicopters were in the news in India for wrong reasons. It was merged with Finmeccanica’s Agusta helicopter division in 2001 and the resulting company, AgustaWestland, lost a £455m contract for 12 VVIP helicopters to India last year following charges of bribery.