The Bofors deal started off as a great corruption scandal. It got converted into the biggest cover-up scandal. Now it has degenerated into farcical comedy. Or should one call it tragedy? That depends on whether you want to laugh or to cry. Recently Swedish investigator Mr. Sten Lindstrom who probed the Bofors deal gave an interview to Ms. Chitra Subramaniam posted on a website. Ms. Subramaniam was the most important Indian investigator to have uncovered the Bofors scandal. Stationed in Europe she was the main source of news about the deal. Her latest interview with Mr. Lindstrom has merely confirmed the long held view that the latter was the main source of the Bofors leaks. Without giving new information the interview has created considerable uproar. The opposition led by the BJP is gunning for the government on the issue.
Mr. Lindstrom in his interview has repeated ancient news. He said:
“There was no evidence that he (Rajiv Gandhi) had received any bribe. But he watched the massive cover-up in India and Sweden and did nothing.”
|... the entire attention of the opposition leaders was focused on the power struggle and not at all on the issue of corruption or of uncovering the truth about the Bofors deal.
Did Rajiv Gandhi cover up the scandal to protect Mr. Ottavio Quattrochchi who seems to be the opposition’s only target, or was there something more? Alas, no opposition leader dares go beyond the Quattrochchi angle. Mr. Lindstrom’s latest interview was enough for TV channel anchors and opposition leaders to work themselves into frenzy. One wonders why. Are all these critics going for the kill or just attempting to score debating points against the government? One suspects it is the latter.
Indeed from day one of the scandal the politicians and media never went for the kill. They stopped short after embarrassing the government. Otherwise how might one explain their role from the time when the scandal first surfaced? It is pertinent to recall what happened earlier that exposed more than what Mr. Lindstrom has recently revealed and the politicians did nothing apart from frothing at their mouths.
On June 14, 1987 I petitioned President Zail Singh to grant me permission to prosecute Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi under sections 120 (B), 161 and 165 of the Indian Penal Code and section 5 (2) of the Prevention of Corruption Act – all these sections read with section 109 of Indian Penal Code. Later the government's FIR registered in the Bofors case on January 22, 1990 cited exactly these same sections. The petition to President Zail Singh drew attention to the evidence that India's ambassador to Sweden, Mr. Bhupat Ozha, had communicated with the government in Delhi to say that while payments had indeed been made in connection with the Bofors deal, they were not made for the "winning of the contract". To put it differently, payments were not made to official middlemen.
Years later Mr. Ozha wrote a book in which he recounted these events in greater detail. It is according to law a crime for any government official to withhold knowledge about any conspiracy to defraud the state if he or she is privy to such information. Under this law, the evidence presented to the President in my petition, if correct, rendered both Rajiv Gandhi and Mr. Arun Nehru guilty although neither may have accepted any bribe.
It may be recalled that at that time Rajiv Gandhi also held the Defence portfolio and had monitored the Bofors deal. After receiving the communication from our ambassador in Sweden, he misled parliament by stating that no payments had been made in the Bofors deal. Corruption apart, this was enough to unseat him from parliament for having committed breach of privilege. He also misled Army Commanders in a meeting by repeating the same. It was above information on which my petition to President Zail Singh was based. The President consulted retired Chief Justice of India Justice Mr. Chandrachud who conceded that a prima facie case existed but advised the President against taking action on political grounds.
Did any politician or media take note of the petition’s content and demand appropriate action? No! Instead Mr. LK Advani warned President Zail Singh of possible impeachment if he sacked the Prime Minister – an option that had never been demanded! Six months or so later Mr. Advani somersaulted to write in a newspaper article that the President indeed had the power to sack the Prime Minister. Other BJP leaders approached the President to urge him that he would be impeached unless he gave assurance that he would support VP Singh to succeed Rajiv Gandhi. In other words the entire attention of the opposition leaders was focused on the power struggle and not at all on the issue of corruption or of uncovering the truth about the Bofors deal.
Subsequent opposition conduct was worse. During VP Singh’s tenure as Prime Minister Mr. Arun Jaitley served as Assistant Solicitor-General in his government. Later he served as a cabinet minister in Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee's government. In a newspaper article Mr. Jaitley wrote: "Barring the two non-Congress governments headed by VP Singh and Atal Behari Vajpayee, the role of the political executive continuously was to prevent the truth from coming out." But as a legal eagle serving VP Singh’s government what did Mr. Jaitley do when I exposed a fresh revelation regarding the Bofors deal published in the now defunct Independent daily from Mumbai?
I reproduced the authentic text of official Swedish documents containing messages sent by the Swedish embassy in New Delhi to its government in Stockholm that were part of the official record of the parliamentary consultative committee in Sweden. The document revealed that Mr. Arun Nehru had been the central negotiator in the Bofors contract on behalf of the Indian government in a secret meeting in Delhi with top Bofors officials though he was neither in the Defence Ministry nor officially designated to negotiate. According to the document "absolute secrecy" was cited as a precondition for the deal and Mr. Arun Nehru insisted that neither Rajiv Gandhi's name nor his own should ever be revealed in connection with the Bofors deal. No middleman or Indian representative for Bofors was to be allowed. The contract would be assured if the "political aspect" was taken care of. Asked to clarify meaning of "political aspect", it was described as "political understanding in the widest sense of the term". The documents also recounted the visit of former Bofors head Mr. Martin Ardbo to India and his meetings with Mr. Arun Nehru.
Yet VP Singh who never tired of lambasting Rajiv Gandhi for the Bofors deal before he became PM, remained silent after the exposure related to his cabinet colleague Mr. Arun Nehru’s secret Delhi meeting with the Bofors officials. Before becoming PM, VP Singh even repeatedly flashed to the media Rajiv Gandhi’s alleged foreign bank account number. After exposure of the Swedish parliamentary record the government neither investigated the information nor questioned Mr. Arun Nehru. When I confronted VP Singh and asked him why, he replied: "Let the law take its own course."
This, then, is the opposition’s record in dealing with the Bofors scandal. The BJP is now threatening to once again rake up the issue in Parliament. How far will it go? Will it seek a copy of the Swedish parliamentary consultative committee record? Will it recall the information recorded by former Indian ambassador to Sweden, Mr. Ozha? Will it ask the government to confirm or deny whether a Swiss bank account held in the name of Rajiv Gandhi as alleged by the respected journal Schweitzer Illustrate existed or not? Will it ask the government to confirm or deny the allegation by former member of the Soviet government’s KGB Commission, Ms. Yevgenia Albats that KGB funds had been regularly paid to Rajiv Gandhi’s family? Will it ask the government to confirm or deny whether the statement by an official spokesman of the Russian government in 1992 that these KGB funds had been paid was correct or not? Will it ask Mrs. Sonia Gandhi to confirm or deny the allegations made by Ms. Albats in a statement on the floor of the House? Will it ask Mrs. Gandhi that if the foreign Swiss bank account ever existed whether it contained only KGB money or also payments from the Bofors deal?
If Mrs. Gandhi denies the allegations the matter should be buried, unless of course there is evidence to contradict her denial. If the opposition sincerely seeks closure of the Bofors scandal it must take matters to their logical end. If the opposition actually believes the government’s innocence, as Mr. Advani’s letter of apology to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi regarding her alleged foreign bank account would suggest, the opposition most likely will attempt merely to embarrass the government and no more.