Was Rajiv Gandhi a middleman in the 1970s for a Swedish company that was looking to sell fighter jets to the Indian Air Force?
A sensational claim to that extent has been made in a new round of WikiLeaks expose of US diplomatic cables relating to "the Henry Kissinger era", published in India in collaboration with The Hindu.
One of the stunning cables (read here), sent by the US embassy in New Delhi in October 1975 (when India was under Emergency), records in telegraphic language that: "Swedish Emboff has informed us that main Indian negotiator with Swedes on Viggen at New Delhi end has been Mrs Gandhi's oler (sic) son, Rajiv Gandhi. Latter's only association with aircraft industry (to our knowledge) has been as pilot for Indian Airlines and this is first time we have heard his name as entrepreneur."
This is arguably the most sensational of the claims relating to India in the first tranche of the Kissinger Cables, which The Hindu has begun serialising from Monday.
There is no independent confirmation or denial of the claim that the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's son, who was then a pilot with Indian Airlines, did in fact negotiate on behalf of the Swedish company Saab-Scania, which was looking to sell 50 Viggen fighter aircraft to India. The very cable that mentions Rajiv Gandhi as an "entrepreneur" also states explicitly that US officials have "no additional information to either refute or confirm the above information."
In any case, Saab-Scania lost out on the deal, having been forced to withdraw from the "fighter sweepstakes" by the US; the deal was eventually secured the British SEPECAT Jaguar.
Nevertheless, the allegation that Rajiv Gandhi, the man who would later become Prime Minister and become embroiled in another scandal relating to another Swedish arms manufacturer in the Bofors howtizer gun deal, may have served as a middlemen of sorts in a fighter jets deal has the potential to send political feathers flying in India.
Nor is this the only suggestion that Rajiv Gandhi was engaged in negotiating on behalf of Saab-Scania. The Hindu report (here) cites another cable from the US embassy in New Delhi from February 1976 (read here), which quotes Swedish embassy officials as waxing eloquent on Rajiv Gandhi's merits in pushing the deal.
The cable notes: "The Swedes here have also made it quite clear they understand the importance of family influences in the final decision in the fighter sweepstakes. Our colleague describes Ranjiv Gandhi (sic.) in flattering terms, and contends his technical expertise is of a high level. This may or may not be. Offhand we would have thought a transport pilot not the best expert to rely upon in evaluating a fighter plan, but then we are speaking of a transport pilot who has another and perhaps more relevant qualification."
The Kissinger Cables relating to India also have other sensational claims, including that at the height of the Emergency, Socialist labour leader George Fernandes, who was then organising a campaign of violent sabotage activities, sought funds from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the French government. (Read The Hindu report here and the US Embassay cable here.)
But the bombshell relating to Rajiv Gandhi is arguably the most sensational.