No 'smoking gun' to prove Rajiv Gandhi was a middleman

The WikiLeaks expose of US cables don't amount to clinching evidence of Rajiv Gandhi's culpability as a middleman in an arms deal from the 1970s. Nevertheless, it gives the Congress reason to worry.

Vembu April 08, 2013 15:53:04 IST
No 'smoking gun' to prove Rajiv Gandhi was a middleman

The political fur has been flying all day since The Hindu published, in collaboration with the international whistleblower website WikiLeaks, details of secret US diplomatic cables from nearly 40 years ago that suggest that then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi, who was then a pilot with Indian Airlines, was a middleman for Swedish company Saab-Scania, which was looking to sell fighter jets to India.

The Opposition parties are calling on the Congress to “come clean” with the truth, which is something of a challenge considering that the principal interlocutors – both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi – are not around anymore. The Congress, predictably, has dismissed the WikiLeaks expose as wholly reliable, which is the party’s standard operating procedure whenever it faces allegations of corruption: stick to stout denial, and hope the problem goes away.

However, going by the narrative in the cables alone, it is hard to establish any damning proof of Rajiv Gandhi’s culpability in the manner in which, for instance, wrongdoing was clearly established in the Bofors scandal in the mid-1980.

No smoking gun to prove Rajiv Gandhi was a middleman

It is hard to establish any damning proof of Rajiv Gandhi’s culpability in the manner in which, for instance, wrongdoing was clearly established in the Bofors scandal in the mid-1980. Reuters

In the latter case, there were extensive documents to establish the commissions money trail from Bofors to Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi and incriminating diary entries penned by Bofors officials, which pointed the needle of suspicion (for the cover up) in the direction of Rajiv Gandhi. It was the nearest thing to a ‘smoking gun’ evidence, which is why Congress leaders protestations to this day that the deal was untainted by corruption and the allegations were an international conspiracy ring hollow.

On the other hand, the latest cables merely record the details of conversations between Swedish and US diplomats in New Delhi in real time, in which the Swedes appear to be boasting to the Americans that they have a trump card – in the form of Rajiv Gandhi - that can swing the deal. The US diplomats dutifully report it back to the State Department, where Henry Kissinger was directing foreign policy in the Nixon administration.

The Swedes’ boastful talk is somewhat hard to explain. If you have a trump card, particularly one that tests the limits of legality, common sense would suggest that you don’t go around trumpeting it, or even revealing your hand in quiet confidence with potential rivals. In this case, the folly of that approach is clearly established: the US effectively drove the Swedes out of the race, which was eventually won by the British SEPECAT Jaguar.

In other words, it’s possible to argue that if Rajiv Gandhi was indeed a middleman for Saab-Scania, he was an ineffectual one. Even with his mother steering the selection process personally, he couldn’t deliver the deal, it would appear.

In any case, the cables themselves establish no payoffs - nor do they trace a money trail. The conversations chronicled by the US diplomats are more in the nature of freewheeling gossip-trading sessions, which don’t amount to anything more than a hill of beans.

So where’s the story, one may ask.

It’s easy to see why an allegation from nearly 40 years ago, when the world was a very different place, , resonates to this day. Big names make news, and the allegation that Rajiv Gandhi wasn’t quite the Mr Clean that he was projected as when he came to power in 1984, following his mother’s assassination, compels us to engage in what-if political parlour games.

If the allegation is true, and Rajiv Gandhi did try to influence the decision to purchase fighter jets in favour of one company, it amounts to influence-peddling of the sorts that the members of the Gandhi clan do even to this day. In the case of Robert Vadra, there is clear evidence that his business profited from “insider trading”, or the knowledge on land-use patterns that he derived from being the son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi.

In Rajiv Gandhi’s case, in the context of the latest allegation, there is of course no such money trail. But to discount the allegation in its entirety merely because he didn’t deliver on the contract is disingenuous. The deal was finally consummated after Indira Gandhi lost office, when Rajiv Gandhi would no longer have had the same influence. That surely cannot be cited as proof of his innocence or of the baseless nature of the allegation.

Sure, the allegation may not gain much traction in the absence of supplementary evidence to establish wrongdoing. But the mere circumstantial evidence – such as it is – against Rajiv Gandhi validates – in the court of public opinion - the worst suspicions about the First Family of Indian politics.

It is this final consideration that ought to give the Congress reason to worry.

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