Bofors: The Stain that Won't Go Away
Twenty-two years after a Swedish radio station first suggested that the Bofors howitzer gun deal involved the payment of "kroners to cronies" in the Rajiv Gandhi government and the Congress party, the controversy is still an occasional "breaking news". Yet, to those who have grown to adulthood after that 1987 broadcast, the scam is a curious leftover of the past.
First, the sum involved -- Rs.64 crore ($13 million) -- is too paltry by today's standards to justify the continuing media interest.
Second, nearly all those implicated in the underhand transactions are dead. They include former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who paid the ultimate political price of squandering a two-thirds parliamentary majority in the post-Bofors elections of 1989. Though the Congress did find its way back to power two years later -- mainly because of dissension among its opponents -- the party has never really been able to regain its earlier, confident pre-Bofors self. Even today it is dependent on restive allies for survival at the centre.
The Bofors scandal, therefore, can be said to be as much of a defining moment for the Congress as the Babri Masjid demolition is for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). There is little doubt that these two events will haunt the two parties for a long time.
Why has Bofors had such a long-lasting impact? For a start, for many people in the seventies and eighties, the scam confirmed the Congress's reputation as a cynical and corrupt organization, which had lost the halo of the freedom movement. While much of the belief in its degeneration was based on speculation, the Bofors affair seemingly provided the first concrete evidence. Although nothing has ever been proved, the mud has stuck for two reasons.
One is that the Rajiv Gandhi government never appeared serious about unearthing the truth despite its promises to do so. A joint parliamentary committee which it set up to probe the deal was widely believed to have conducted a whitewash, helped by the opposition's unwise decision to boycott it.
The other reason was the relentless efforts of several journalists, of whom The Hindu's Chitra Subramaniam deserves special mention, which kept the spotlight on the deal. They were helped by the intriguing entries in the diary of Martin Ardbo, the Bofors president, which referred to "Q", "Nero" and "Gandhi trustee lawyer" in connection with the scam.
Since "Q" was believed to refer to Ottavio Quattrocchi, the Italian businessman, who was known to be close to the Nehru-Gandhi family, and "Nero" to Arun Nehru, then an influential minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government, it did not take long for most people to jump to unflattering conclusions about political skullduggery.
The misgivings about the government's, and specifically the Congress's, dubious role were also substantiated to a large extent by the Central Bureau of Investigation's (CBI) seeming unwillingness to pursue the available leads on Quattrocchi with sufficient purposefulness.
The doubts about the government's intentions were heightened, for instance, by its decision to unfreeze Quattrocchi's London bank account, the inability to extradite him from Argentina, where he was arrested because of an Interpol notice, and finally the latest move to withdraw the cases against him.
Although it isn't only the Congress regimes which failed to make any headway in clearing the mists about the scandal -- the non-Congress governments fared no better -- it is now reasonably clear that the taint will persist for India's Grand Old Party.
It must be all the more regrettable for it at present when it is again trying to recover some of its lost aura by reaching out to the people -- as Rahul Gandhi is doing -- and focusing more on good governance via people of integrity and efficiency like Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram.
The Congress's chances of recapturing its lost glory are also fairly bright at the moment because of the disarray in the ranks of its adversaries, such as the BJP and the Left.
The Congress must be ruing the fact, therefore, that an echo from its unsavory past should continue to resonate in the political arena. Even if the ordinary people are apparently willing to forget the issue -- or, at least, no longer penalize the party for it -- as is evident from the Congress's recent electoral successes, the opposition parties and the media are unlikely to bury the scam in the foreseeable future.
Their interest is explained by the fact that the issue directly involves the Nehru-Gandhi family and, therefore, hits the party where it hurts the most.
Unlike the authoritarianism of Indira Gandhi, which has a fairly large body of admirers, and the abrasiveness of Sanjay Gandhi, which too is appreciated by some like Khushwant Singh, the smear of corruption is a near-permanent stain. It will take a Herculean effort of moral rectitude and dedicated public service by Congressmen at all levels to overcome this hurdle.
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