Former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, it was often said, could speak 13 languages - and remain silent in all of them. When one of India's foremost journalists, who had a convivial relationship with him, entreated him to reveal some of the sensational political dope that he'd accumulated in a long political career, Narasimha Rao is known to have patted his tummy - and said that the "secrets" that he had ingested would die with him. His lips, which were forever formed in a famous pout, would remain sealed like those of a clam.
In much the same manner, Ottavio Quattrocchi, the Italian businessman who died in Milan on Saturday, too has carried to the grave with him the intimate details of his pivotal role in the Bofors scandal, which will forever remain an Indian metaphor for corruption in high places. Even in a country long inured to corruption, the perverse lengths to which the First Family of Indian politics went to cover up the trail of corruption that led right up to their front door made for a defining moment when, in a larger sense, Political India lost its innocence.
But unlike the secrets that Narasimha Rao never spilt, the ones relating to Quattrocchi are India's worst-kept secrets.
The Bofors story is a fairly simple one, as Chitra Subramaniam-Duella, the journalist who helped unravel the tangled web, narrates here. India bought field howitzers from Sweden in 1986 for $1.2 billion. A supply contract worth almost twice that amount was also negotiated for transfer of technology, supply of documents and knowhow, so that India could, over time, become self-sufficient. The guns were excellent - their utility was demonstrated at the time of the Kargil war. And the price was competitive.
And yet, there were problems, because bribes, masquerading as "commissions" and "winding-up charges" were paid, even though they were illegal. No middlemen were to have been involved in the deal, and yet, a company that was fronting for Quattrocchi walked in at the last minute, cut into the commissions of other agents, and asssured Bofors that they need not be paid if the deal didn't come through by a certain date. And having delivered the deal, evidently leveraging his access to the Gandhi family, which also secured him immunity from investigation and prosecution, Quattrocchi walked away a considerably richer man.
In the summer of 1987, when the Bofors scandal broke, Arun Singh, then the minister of state for defence in the Rajiv Gandhi government and a fellow Doon School-mate of Rajiv’s, suggested that there was an easy way to get Bofors to reveal whether it had paid bribes to win the Indian contract.
India, he said, should exercise its “commercial clout” over Bofors – and threaten it with cancellation of the contract if it refused to cooperate with the Indian government and assist in the investigations to determine if it had indeed paid middlemen—which was expressly forbidden—to bag the order.
At the first stage, Arun Singh suggested, the Indian government should summon the Bofors chief executive to India and demand an explanation over allegations that had first surfaced in Swedish radio revelations – that the company had paid commissions to close associates of Rajiv Gandhi to secure the contract.
Arun Singh evidently thought he was acting in the best interests of the country – and of his friend Rajiv Gandhi, whom he suspected had had his name smeared without any basis. But the manner in which key cabinet ministers ganged up against him to shoot down his suggestion and virtually hounded him out of the Cabinet led him to believe that some mischief was afoot.
Arun Singh immediately resigned from the Rajiv Gandhi administration in very strained circumstances: his last meeting with Rajiv Gandhi, he recalled, was characterised by “bitterness”. He then retreated to the hills, opting out of a career in government, but the bitterness between the two families and in the Congress lingered long after.
Much was expected of Rajiv Gandhi when he took office (in tragic circumstances in October 1984), particularly given the earnestness he exuded in cleaning up politics. But if that promise was never realised, a large part of it is owed to the centrality of Quattrocchi in the Bofors scandal, which reduced Rajiv Gandhi's name to mud in just a few years. It was the proximity of Quattrocchi to his family that eventually gutted Rajiv Gandhi's political career prematurely.
Quattrocchi may be dead today, but countless other Quattrocchis still strut their stuff in the power capital of India, wielding enormous leverage over defence acquisitions - and walking away with big-money bribes. The string of sensational scandals, each more eye-popping than the previous ones, in defence acquisitions in recent years is testimony to that fact. And the template that is being used in the cover-up in every instance - for instance, in the Agusta Westland helicopter deal - is much the same as was adopted in the Bofors case.
With Quattrocchi's death, the last surviving link between the scandal and the Gandhi household may have been severed. But the Bofors scandal will forever remain a high watermark for political corruption in India. For that reason, it must never be forgotten, even though the lurid details of India's biggest 'open secret' are just a distant memory.