Those who might be wondering why Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to resurrect the Bofors ghost at a rally on Saturday and followed it up on Monday by challenging the Congress to contest the last two phases of these protracted elections in former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s name, don’t really have to look far to find the right answers.
But before we get to that, a few words on propriety. In his election speech on Saturday, the prime minister had said that former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi may have been feted by his courtiers, ‘but his life ended as Bhrashtachari No. 1’. Quite apart from the fact that almost three decades after Rajiv Gandhi’s death this comment was both gratuitous and in extremely bad taste, there is the small matter of a judicial verdict to be factored in.
In February 2004, the Delhi High Court had honourably acquitted Rajiv in the Bofors case. The presiding judge had said that ‘16 long years of investigation by … the CBI could not unearth a scintilla of evidence against’ Rajiv and bureaucrat SK Bhatnagar. The National Democratic Alliance government of the day led by Atal Behari Vajpayee had not appealed the verdict.
In November last year, the Central Bureau of Investigation had appealed against another Delhi High Court order passed in 2005 acquitting the Hinduja brothers. The Supreme Court had refused to entertain it because it had been filed 13 years after the high court had delivered its verdict. The Rajiv Gandhi verdict has not been appealed.
One presumes that the prime minister is aware of the facts of the case. We’ve just had yet another confirmation that trivial matters like facts – the truth – also does not get in Modi’s way when the craving for rhetoric overwhelms him. Yet, the question about timing remains: Why Rajiv Gandhi now?
Bofors started out as a defence acquisition scam. Let us turn to another defence acquisition scam to figure out why Modi pulled this particular rabbit out of his hat on Saturday. We refer to the Rafale scam, of course. The prime minister and his government have been under the cosh for the past few months over the way they went about recasting the Rafale deal, with a series of media reports based on official documents showing in excruciating detail how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government bent procedures, conventions and rules in pursuing the deal. Of special interest was the intervention of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to override concerns voiced by the defence ministry and the team that was negotiating the deal.
In December last year, the Supreme Court had disposed of complaints against the deal and held that it was kosher. But in April this year, it dismissed the Centre’s objections and admitted review petitions in the light of the new revelations. On 10 April, it had refused to entertain the Centre’s plea that documents on which the reportage was based, which led to the review petitions, were obtained without authorisation and its invocation of the Official Secrets Act, citing the Right to Information Act and a 1971 US Supreme Court judgement. The bench had been quite categorical. In any case, since the documents that raised questions about the conduct of the PMO were already in the public domain, the petitions were admitted.
Blow one against the BJP. Then, at a hearing on 30 April, after the protracted election process had already started grinding, the Centre had sought a four-week adjournment to file its affidavits countering the bunch of review petitions. The reason for seeking such a long adjournment was obvious: The BJP wanted to put the judicial process on hold until the elections were over because the proceedings were not exactly generating a lot of positive publicity. The Supreme Court declined to give them the desired breather and asked for the counter-affidavits in four days; factoring in enclosures that meant the Central government had till 6 May to file its papers.
Actually, the government filed its affidavits on 4 May, exposing the fact that its plea for a four-week adjournment was a dilatory tactic. In its affidavits, the Centre made two submissions. First, it repeated the already discredited arguments centred on the Official Secrets Act, telling the court that if penal provisions for the publication of state secrets were waived the very existence of the state would be threatened. Translated into English, in this case at least, that seems to mean that the government should be free to do anything it wants, including possibly cutting corrupt deals, without being subjected to public scrutiny. The Modi government wasn’t really on a strong wicket here.
Second, it argued that the PMO was just monitoring the negotiations; that could not be construed as interference. Going by media reports of the court proceedings, the Centre’s submission seemed not to have met the concerns raised by the reportage and the petitions. On the one hand, for instance, the Centre argued that the media reports on which the petitions were based had published parts of files selectively and were, therefore, incomplete and off the mark. On the other hand, while arguing the case for secrecy, the Centre had said that the petitioners had asked for almost the entire Rafale file on the basis of the court’s 10 April order. Again, the Modi government wasn’t really murdering the bowling on a placid track.
Small wonder that it was on the same day, 4 May, that the prime minister fired his volley at the late and exonerated prime minister at a rally in Uttar Pradesh. When in doubt, divert attention. Sensing that his government wasn’t doing all that well on the Rafale front, all that Modi was trying to do was resurrect a thirty-year-old case, now for all practical purposes done and dusted, to divert unwelcome attention directed at his office—the PMO—and, therefore, at him.
In other words, Modi has dragged Rajiv Gandhi and Bofors into the electoral discourse at this point of time as misdirection. He knows that he can only gain from this move -- to whatever extent he succeeds with his diversionary tactic. He certainly can’t lose, because it’s pretty unlikely that he will be sued for defamation. At worst, Congress can complain to the Election Commission, which, in fact, it has. Given its track record, it’s unlikely that the Election Commission is going to act against him. Even if it does, the elections will have gotten over by the time it raps him gently on the knuckles. Talk about heads I win…
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Updated Date: May 08, 2019 08:06:07 IST