This note of Rajiv Gandhi set the tone for further investigations into Bofors. The first result was Arun Singh’s resignation three days later.
However, the efforts to get to the truth did not stop here. Even as Rajiv Gandhi was berating Arun Singh for not considering security interests while threatening Bofors with cancellation, the army saw no concerns with Arun Singh’s strategy.
CBI files show that the then Indian Army chief, General K Sundarji, wrote a note to then Defence Secretary SK Bhatnagar: “If India threatened to cancel the contract with Bofors, there was a 99.9 percent chance that Bofors would ‘cough up’ the information about the persons who had received the money and that in the event of actual cancellation of the contract, the delay caused in acquiring an alternate gun could be borne by India.”
In an interview to India Today, General Sundarji also disclosed that he had conveyed the same view to Gopi Arora, then Special Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office.
General Sundarji’s note, however, was found awkward by the Rajiv Gandhi administration. And SK Bhatnagar did ask him to modify the note. When he refused to do so, Bhatnagar returned his note. “I recommended that in the interest of vindicating National Honour we apply full pressure on Bofors to part with the information needed for legal action against the culprits and accept the risk that this might, in the worst case, lead to a cancellation of the contract,’’ General Sundarji stated in the interview (which the CBI has quoted during the Bofors investigations).
So here was a situation when all the top brass of the Indian government were on the same page in June 1987. The country’s army chief asserted that cancellation of the Bofors deal would not affect security. The Attorney General for India too had given advice to the Ministry of Defence that the Bofors contract could be cancelled. Arun Singh and KC Pant had already spoken in favour of threatening Bofors with cancellation for getting names of the middlemen. Even SK Bhatnagar was for serving the ‘cancellation’ threat.
In his recent interview, Lindstrom notes that even without these threats, but fearing cancellation, Bofors actually “sent its top executives to India with the one-point task of giving out the names. Nobody of any consequence received them.”
How could this have happened without pressure from the highest in the land?
The pressure was evident from the fact that a month later, in July 1987, Bhatnagar did a volte face and expressed a totally different view opposing the threat of cancellation of the Bofors contract. “There are reasons to believe that SK Bhatnagar did so either on his own or was prevailed upon to do so,” the CBI FIR says.
Not only this. On 16 September 1987, the CBI files say, Swedish Chief Prosecutor Lars Ringberg made a request to India, through Interpol, for assistance in his enquiries from the government of India. “Are the Indian investigation authorities interested in exchange of information with the Swedish preliminary leaders?” asked Ringberg’s letter.
“Apart from referring the message of Lars Ringberg to JPC (Joint Parliamentary Committee in India), no further action was taken on the message,’’ the CBI files say. In fact, Ringberg had to withdraw the inquiry inconclusively because of non-assistance of the Indian government.
“A judicial inquiry similar to our preliminary inquiry concerning possible bribery offences has not been commenced in India. Thus, neither written nor oral evidence has been obtained through the inquiry undertaken with regard to whom payments were made and the reasons for them. In view of this, and since it cannot be expected that information of decisive importance for the matter of prosecution could be obtained by continuing the inquiry, the preliminary inquiry is withdrawn,’’ remarked Ringberg in his statement recorded on 28 January 1988.
In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi was ousted and VP Singh replaced him. In May 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was killed in a terrorist attack in Chennai. The Bofors case literally crawled despite conclusive evidence of Quattrocchi receiving illegal money as middleman even after Rajiv Gandhi’s death.
On 20 October 1993, the CBI, for the first time, put up a proposal for issuing a letter rogatory to the Liechtenstein government for help in the Bofors probe, since the government was willing to help. But Prime Minister Narasimha Rao did not agree to the CBI’s request.
When Joginder Singh joined as CBI Director in 1996, only one witness, that is a retired under-secretary in the defence ministry, had been examined three times. “It was a hot case and nobody was willing to touch it, much less investigate it. Even I was advised that it would be in my interest not to wake the sleeping giants,” Joginder Singh said.
Despite a Bofors charge-sheet naming Rajiv Gandhi and dropping charges against him at the same time because he was dead, the truth has not come out so far. Despite recording consistent delays by the Rajiv Gandhi-led administration (in which Gopi Arora, Special Secretary to Rajiv Gandhi, and Sarla Grewal, Principal Secretary to Rajiv Gandhi, were prominently mentioned) in the Bofors probe, the CBI rather chose to close the case.