Congress spokespersons believe that trying to bring the Bofors payoff scandal back to life is like flogging a dead horse. But they have been quick to latch on to retired Swedish police chief Sten Lindstrom’s recent statement (read here) that there was no evidence to directly link Rajiv Gandhi to the payoffs.
But the main point that was missed is that Rajiv Gandhi moved heaven and earth to scuttle the investigations, and various Indian governments – even opposition-led ones like the NDA – failed to put in real efforts to get to the names, which would ultimately have led to Ottavio Quattrocchi, close friend of Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi. Thus the question is not whether Rajiv received any bribe for the Bofors deal, but why did he and his close ring of officials go out of the way to protect Quattrocchi – unless it was to protect the linkage to him and Sonia.
Firstpost sifted through some of the old papers relating to the Bofors case in the late 1980s, and what Rajiv Gandhi’s role was in scuttling efforts to get to the bottom of the scandal. Here’s what we found (with some background included).
The Bofors deal was struck in 1986 and months later Swedish Radio reported that Bofors had paid commissions to middlemen for securing the Rs 1,600 crore deal in contravention of Indian laws. But for three years, the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government did not let the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) register an FIR in the case. The FIR happened only on 22 January 1990, when VP Singh ousted Rajiv Gandhi in the 1989 election.
The CBI’s old Bofors files bear out the statements of Sten Lindstrom. They did not find a payoff link to Rajiv Gandhi, but there is no doubt he held up the investigations for fairly obvious reasons: his family’s proximity with Ottavio Quattrocchi, who was a proven recipient of illegal money.
The Bofors FIR begins with a note: “Subsequent to the Bofors contract, when allegations of bribery were repeatedly made by the media and in Parliament from April 1987 onwards, only ineffective and half-hearted steps were taken and no serious or purposeful effort was made by the concerned public servants of the government of India to get the true facts. On the other hand, whenever any occasion arose or specific suggestions were made of steps that could be taken to find out the truth, efforts were successfully made, as set out hereafter, to foil all attempts at it and to suppress the same.’’
Although the CBI’s own role appears shady during stints of Congress-led governments, it did not deter the organisation from documenting how the investigations were systematically delayed over the years. And Rajiv Gandhi’s role is quite evident in the CBI files.
In June 1987, when the entire country was concerned about the Bofors scandal, the then Minister of State for Defence Arun Singh prepared a note and got ratified it by the then Defence Minister KC Pant. The note was categorical that the Indian government should threaten to snap diplomatic ties with Sweden and cancel the Bofors gun deal if Bofors would not give names of middlemen.
“In my view we must be prepared to go to this extent of cancellation because our very credibility as a government is at stake and, what is worse, the credibility of the entire process of defence acquisitions is also at stake,’’ Arun Singh said in his 'draft’ letter.
When the letter was sent to Rajiv Gandhi for final approval, he wrote back on 15 June 1987: “It is unfortunate that MOS/AS has put his personal prestige above the security of the nation before even evaluating all aspects. I appreciate his feelings as he had been dealing with defence almost completely on his own with my full support but that is not adequate reason to be ready to compromise the security of the nation.
“Has he evaluated the actual position vis-a-vis security? Has he evaluated the financial loss of a cancellation? Has he evaluated the degree of breach of contract by Bofors, if any? Has he evaluated the consequences for all future defence purchases if we cancel a contract unilaterally? Has he evaluated how rival manufacturers will behave in the future? Has he evaluated how GOI prestige will plummet if we unilaterally cancel a contract that has not been violated?
“To the best of my belief the Swedish Audit report upholds GOI position and does not contradict it. What we need to do is to get to the roots and find out what precisely has been happening and who all are involved. Knee-jerk reactions and stomach cramps will not serve any purpose. RRM (Arun Singh) has run the ministry fairly well but there is no reason to panic, specially if one’s conscience is clear.”
Clearly, Rajiv Gandhi played the national security card to stymie the probe.
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