Bofors and Volcker Will it be the same old story?

Last week the Pathak Commission probing the Volcker Report gave the Congress party a clean chit. Also last week, Mr. Arun Singh emerged from the shadows after two decades to remind us of Bofors. Years ago the Joint Parliamentary Committee probing the Bofors case had given the government a clean chit. 

Mr. Arun Singh told his interviewer, Mr. Shekhar Gupta: 'I did not take any money ' that I am 100 per cent sure of. For the rest I cannot say, but I would have found out. I don't think he stopped me on the ground he did, that is my perception.' In other words Rajiv Gandhi prevented the truth from coming out. Corruption has never really been the issue. The real issue was always the cover-up of corruption.

The name of the game is politics. Politicians never convict each other. They destroy reputations. They never fight corruption. They fight political opponents.

Remember Mr. VP Singh flashing a secret bank account number before becoming PM, and going silent after becoming PM? 

Mr. Arun Singh's recent disclosure was promptly seized by Mr. Arun Jaitley. He wrote a newspaper article recalling the official machinations which prevented the Bofors truth from coming out. Predictably, he blamed the Congress. But what about those years when he served as Assistant Solicitor-General in Mr. VP Singh's government and as a cabinet minister in Mr. Vajpayee's government? 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.' His memory seems to have lapsed. 

During Mr. VP Singh's tenure the now defunct Independent daily from Mumbai published the authenticated text of official Swedish documents containing messages sent by the Swedish embassy in New Delhi to its government in Stockholm. These documents are part of the official record of the parliamentary consultative committee in Sweden. The text revealed that Mr. Arun Nehru was for some time the central figure negotiating the Bofors contract on behalf of the Indian government, even though he was neither in the ministry concerned nor officially authorized to do so. The documents revealed that 'absolute secrecy' was cited as a precondition for the deal. According to the documents 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 recounted the visit of former Bofors head Mr. Martin Ardbo to India and his meetings with Mr. Arun Nehru. 

These exposures appeared in India while Mr. VP Singh was prime minister. Yet the government neither investigated the information nor questioned Mr. Arun Nehru who was a cabinet minister. When confronted with this inexplicable lapse, Mr. VP Singh gave his characteristic reply: 'Let the law take its own course.' 

Now some people are excited by Mr. Arun Singh's hint that Rajiv Gandhi stood in the way of the Bofors truth coming out. The irony is that what Mr. Arun Singh has haltingly hinted at now, was presented as authenticated fact on June 14, 1987. That was the day when President Zail Singh was petitioned for 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. The government's FIR registered in the Bofors case on January 22, 1990 cited precisely these same sections. 

The petition to President Zail Singh rested on evidence that India's ambassador to Sweden, Mr. Bhupat Ozha, had communicated with the government to say while payments had indeed been made in connection with the Bofors deal, they were not made for the 'winning of the contract'. In other words, payments were not made to official middlemen. Subsequently Mr. Ozha wrote a book in which he recounted his experiences of that time. According to law it is 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 available evidence, if correct, suggested that both Rajiv Gandhi and Mr. Arun Nehru were guilty although neither may have accepted money. It may be recalled that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi also held the Defence portfolio and had monitored the Bofors deal. A few days after he received the communication from our ambassador in Sweden, he misled parliament by affirming that no payments were made in the Bofors deal. It was this information that sustained the petition presented to President Zail Singh. The President consulted a retired chief justice who opined that a prima facie case did exist. However, President Zail was advised against taking action. 

It is not the intention here to revive the Bofors controversy. Others will do that. What needs understanding is that no part of the Establishment seems genuinely committed to rooting out corruption. The sole motive apparently is to extract partisan advantage without affecting the prevalent corrupt political system. Media tends to be part of the system. The facts recounted above were shunned by some famous editors who were crusading against the Bofors corruption. After Mr. Arun Nehru's name surfaced they backed off.

Will the Oil for Food scam repeat what happened in the Bofors case? The Pathak Commission has indicted Mr. Natwar Singh and his son Mr. Jagat Singh for having misused their offices although neither has been accused of accepting money. They helped family relatives and friends. Mr. Andaleeb Sehgal and Mr. Aditya Khanna are accused of making money. But neither Mr. Natwar Singh nor Mr. Jagat Singh was at that time in the government. So were they misusing the offices they respectively held in the Congress party? If that is so, how can the Congress party be given a clean chit? It is for the Congress party to determine through an internal inquiry whether or not Mr. Natwar Singh misused his office. By giving a clean chit to Congress the Pathak Commission has clearly exceeded its brief.

Will Mr. Natwar Singh, like Mr. Arun Singh, reveal all after twenty years? He has belatedly admitted he wrote letters to Iraq's oil minister. Truth in driblets will merely diminish him. He should speak up. The late President Kennedy once said that those who do not speak when they should lose the right to speak altogether. In India things are different. Those who speak when they should, lose their jobs, their status, their reputations, and sometimes even friends. But guess what? They do feel good!  


More by :  Dr. Rajinder Puri

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