Exactly 20 years ago, Swedish Radio jolted the national conscience here with a report that the Swedish armament company Bofors had paid bribes to key Indian leaders and defence officials through secret Swiss bank accounts to win a $1.3 billion contract for howitzer guns for the Indian Army.
That explosive report, which was immediately denied by the government with a standard statement circulated through PTI that it was "false, baseless and mischievous", immediately sent alarm bells ringing in the establishment and led to a flurry of meetings between then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and top officials.
What subsequently came to be known as the Bofors corruption scandal has come to dog India's political landscape for the next two decades, causing the downfall of the Gandhi government in 1989, and plaguing every government in the country since then without showing any signs of resolution or conviction of the alleged wrongdoers.
However, this tortuous and meandering federal investigation, which was meant to pin down the beneficiaries of the Rs.640 million pay-offs for the 155-mm howitzers that otherwise have served the army well, has got lost in a tangle of judicial web across several countries with the sole surviving accused, Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrochi, still evading arrest after surfacing in far away Argentina.
Despite prolonged court battles, the countless Letters Rogatory (LRs) sent to Panama, Liechenstein and Luxembourg for tracking the movement of monies linked to the scandal, the setting up of a parliamentary commission and a mountain of documentation, there has not been one conviction.
Ironically, this case, which was responsible for the Congress party's defeat in the 1989 general elections, leaving it with fewer than 200 of the 543 seats, has cost the exchequer Rs.2.5 billion in this costly police investigation!
As a major corruption scandal that hogged the political setting in the 1980s, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and several others were accused of receiving kickbacks from the now defunct AB Bofors.
But even while the case was being investigated, Gandhi was assassinated May 21, 1991.
It was only after 12 years, in October 1999, that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed its first chargesheet naming as middlemen the Dubai-based businessman Win Chadha, Italian businessman Quattrocchi, former Indian defence secretary S.K. Bhatnagar, former Bofors top honcho Martin Ardbo and Bofors company as recipients. The late Gandhi's name too figured in the chargesheet as "an accused not sent for trial".
A year later, the investigating agency filed a supplementary chargesheet, naming and linking the Hinduja brothers - Gopichand, Prakashchand and Srichand - to the kickbacks in the gun deal.
In spite of procuring valuable documents from Swiss banks after years of legal wrangling, the CBI was still unable to pinpoint the names of recipients and bank accounts, the transfer of monies through several continents and other related material.
In fact, the opposite happened. The case slowly yet surely began to fall apart, for reasons, sometimes, outside the CBI's control.
Firstly, three of the accused - Win Chadha, Bhatnagar and Arbdo - died during the course of the probe. Then, in 2004 the Delhi High Court quashed the charges of bribery against Gandhi.
If that was not enough, in May 2005, a high court quashed the framing of charges against the Hinduja brothers.
While delivering his judgment, Judge R.S. Sodhi found fault with the CBI for its failure to submit originals or authenticated copies of relevant documents on the basis of which the investigating agency wanted to prosecute the brothers.
"Based on this dubious material, to allow prosecution for many more years, in respect of a transaction of more than 20 years vintage, is sheer persecution, waste of public time and money," said Sodhi.
The lone remaining accused in the case, Quattrocchi - known to be close to the Gandhis and who emerged as a powerful broker in the 80s between big business and the Indian government - had already made good his escape from India on the night of July 30, 1993 from India.
Former Indian ambassador to Sweden B M Oza, author of "The Ambassador's Evidence" who was in Stockholm when the deal was negotiated, maintains the case is going nowhere.
"Most of the dramatis personae are dead. The only one living is Quattrocchi. Even if he is brought to India, he's not going to disclose the political payoffs as he's already stated that Rajiv Gandhi was a good family friend. So, honestly this is the end of the tunnel," Oza, who is now retired and lives in New Delhi, told IANS.
The CBI's umpteen efforts to extradite Quattrocchi have failed. And despite mounting their best legal defence, a Malaysian court finally denied India's request for Quattrocchi's extradition in December 2002.
Inexplicably, two of Quattrocchi's British bank accounts, containing 3 million euros and $1 million, which had been frozen in 2003 by a court order, were de-frozen on Jan 11, 2006.
Former additional solicitor general B.K. Datta, acting on behalf of the government and CBI, requested the British government that Quattrocchi's accounts be de-frozen on grounds of insufficient evidence to link them to the Bofors payoff.
The BJP, on its part, blames the Congress for its casual approach to the case and for being soft on Quattrocchi.
"When we were in power, we got Quattrocchi's accounts frozen and got a red corner notice issued. The Congress helped him escape and got his accounts defrozen. That gives rise to suspicion," party vice-president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi told IANS.
Though the moribund case again acquired some thrust when Quattrocchi was picked up by the Argentine authorities in February this year his subsequent release and the absence of an extradition treaty with Argentina has only fuelled speculation that this may be the last one has heard of the high-flying and well-connected business tycoon.
Even though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has assured parliament that the "law of the land will prevail" and investigators were being given "full freedom" to purse the Bofors case, there is considerable skepticism whether a government of the Congress, whose leader is Sonia Gandhi and whose late husband was a suspect in the case, would seriously bring the Bofors riddle to its conclusion.
In a political drama spanning more than two decades, the Bofors case - with its manifold ramifications - has come to symbolize not only venality and brazenness of the ruling establishment, or the limitations of the criminal justice system in transcending boundaries of complex national laws, but may well go down as one of the unsolved riddles of Indian history.
Chronology of Bofors scandal
Following is the chronology of events in the Bofors howitzer payoff scandal:
March 24, 1986: A $1.4 billion contract between the Indian government and Swedish arms company AB Bofors signed for supply of over 400 155mm howitzers.
April 16, 1987: Swedish Radio claims Bofors paid kickbacks to top Indian politicians and key defence officials to secure the deal.
April 20, 1987: Then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi assures the Lok Sabha that neither was any middleman involved in the deal nor were kickbacks paid.
Aug 6, 1987: Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) set up under B. Shankaranand to probe into allegations of kickbacks.
February 1988: Indian investigators visit Sweden.
July 18, 1989: JPC report presented to parliament.
November 1989: Rajiv Gandhi loses power as Congress defeated in general elections.
Dec 26, 1989: Then prime minister V.P. Singh's government bars Bofors from entering into any defence contract with India.
Jan 22, 1990: Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) registers complaint in the case.
Jan 26, 1990: Swiss authorities freeze bank accounts of Svenska and AE Services, who allegedly received unauthorised commissions for the deal.
Feb 17, 1992: Journalist Bo Anderson's sensational report on the Bofors payoffs case published.
December 1992: Supreme Court reverses a Delhi High Court decision quashing the complaint in the case.
Feb 9, 1993: Supreme Court rejects former Bofors agent Win Chadha's plea for quashing the letters rogatory sent by the trial court to its counterpart in Sweden seeking assistance in the case.
July 12, 1993: Swiss federal court rules that India was entitled to Swiss bank documents pertaining to the kickbacks.
July 29/30 1993: Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, who was representing Italian fertiliser firm Snam Progetti for several years, leaves India to avoid arrest warrant the CBI was seeking.
Jan 21, 1997: After four years of legal wrangles, secret documents running into over 500 pages given to Indian authorities at a public ceremony in Berne.
Jan 30, 1997: CBI constitutes special investigation team for the case.
Feb 10, 1997: CBI questions ex-army chief General Krishnaswamy Sundarji.
Feb 12, 1997: Letters rogatory issued to Malaysia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) seeking arrest of Quattrocchi and Win Chadha.
May 1998: Delhi High Court rejects Quattrocchi's plea for quashing of the 'red corner' notice issued by Interpol at the request of CBI.
Oct 22, 1999: CBI files first chargesheet naming Win Chadha, Quattrocchi, former Indian defence secretary S.K. Bhatnagar, former Bofors chief Martin Ardbo and Bofors company. Former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's name figured as "an accused not sent for trial" as he was killed in 1991.
Nov 7, 1999: Trial court issues arrest warrants against Quattrocchi, while summoning other four accused.
Dec 13, 1999: CBI team goes to Malaysia to seek extradition of Quattrocchi; fails in its efforts.
Early 2000: Quattrocchi approaches the Supreme Court for quashing of arrest warrant against him. Court asks him to appear before CBI for interrogation while protecting him from being arrested. Quattrocchi refuses to accept the order, saying his counsel misled the court.
March 18, 2000: Chadha comes to India to face trial.
July 29, 2000: Trial court issues "open non-bailable arrest warrants" against Ardbo.
Sep 4, 2000: Chadha moves Supreme Court for permission to go to Dubai for treatment. Supreme Court rejects plea a week later.
Sep 29, 2000: Hindujas issue statement in London saying funds received by them from Bofors had no connection with the gun deal.
Oct 9, 2000: CBI files supplementary chargesheet naming Hinduja brothers as accused in the Bofors gun deal.
Dec 20, 2000: Quattrocchi arrested in Malaysia, gets bail but is asked to stay within the country.
Aug 6, 2001: Former defence secretary Bhatnagar dies of cancer.
Oct 24, 2001: Win Chadha dies of heart attack at his New Delhi residence.
Nov 15, 2002: Hinduja brothers formally charged with cheating, criminal conspiracy and corruption.
Dec 2, 2002: Malaysian court denies India's request for Quattrocchi's extradition.
July 28, 2003: Acting on India's request, Britain freezes Quattrocchi's bank accounts.
Jan 4, 2004: Swiss authorities agree to consider CBI's request for providing Quattrocchi's bank details.
Feb 4, 2004: Delhi High Court clears Rajiv Gandhi of involvement in the Bofors kickbacks scandal.
May 31, 2005: Delhi High Court clears Hindujas of involvement in the scandal.
Dec 31, 2005: The CBI tells Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), London, that it has not been able to link the money in two accounts of Quattrocchi with the Bofors kickbacks
Jan 7, 2006: Two accounts of Quattrocchi in London banks containing 3 million euros and $1 million were defreezed after then additional solicitor general B. Dutta met the CPS lawyers.
Feb 6, 2007: Quattrocchi detained at Iguazu international airport on an Interpol lookout notice.
Feb 13, 2007: CBI writes to ministry of external affairs for Argentinean Extradition Act and tells Interpol Buenos Aires that documentation being prepared for extradition proceedings.
Feb 24, 2007: Fresh warrant of arrest against Quattrocchi obtained from Delhi court.
Feb 26, 2007: Quattrochhi released on bail with condition that he does not leave Argentina.
Feb 28, 2007: Two-member CBI team to leave for Argentina
March 1, 2007: Argentinean judge examines CBI's application seeking Quattrocchi's extradition. Decision pending.
March 27, 2007: Two-member CBI team returns to New Delhi, awaits court decision. Court decides to take up matter on May 7