By Mythili Mishra
The ‘ghost of Bofors’ has returned to haunt the Congress. Demanding an enquiry into the scandal that shook the Rajiv Gandhi government, the Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Ananth Kumar said, “The former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was involved in this. There must be a thorough probe. The country should know a complete truth.” This came after a parliamentary panel suggested that the case should be reopened, as there were several holes in the previous investigations.
Murky beginnings of an international scandal
In 1986, India signed a multi-million arms deal with the Swedish company, Bofors AB, for the supply of 410 155mm Howitzer field guns. In the subsequent year, following the deal, news of a possible scam broke out on a Swedish radio channel. The deal was seemingly acquired with the substantial aid of bribery. Bofors had allegedly paid ₹640 million in kickbacks to top Indian politicians and key defence officials. However, it eventually ended in a scandal that implicated the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and several other Congress politicians including top bureaucrats. A journalist, Chitra Subramaniam, secured several documents that contained details about these payoffs. The unprecedented scale of the scam contributed to the decline of the popularity and eventual defeat of Rajiv Gandhi in 1989. He also came close to being dismissed by the President, Giani Zail Singh, over corruption charges and for failing to perform his constitutional duty of keeping the President informed.
Tracing cold trails
A Joint Parliamentary Committee was soon set up to look into the allegations. Ottavio Quattrocchi became a person of interest in the investigation. He was reportedly close to the Gandhi family, supposedly being the broker between the corporation and the Indian government. In 1999, the CBI, under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, filed a charge sheet against Quattrocchi, Win Chadha, Rajiv Gandhi, the Defence Secretary S. K. Bhatnagar, and other officials. However, prior to this, Gandhi was assassinated by LTTE militants. Further, in 2001, Win Chadha and S. K. Bhatnagar died. Additionally, the Indian government was unsuccessful in its attempt to extradite (bring him under Indian jurisdiction) Quattrocchi from Argentina in 2006. He died of a heart attack in Milan in 2013. Several analysts have maintained that the CBI was forced to toe the line in its investigation. For instance, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, which came into power in 2004, quashed the CBI’s attempt to file a special leave petition (SLP). This was against the order of the Delhi High Court, which dismissed all charges.
Current agitations put Congress at risk
Sten Lindstrom, the Swedish police official who led the investigations, recently said that Rajiv Gandhi and Palme had discussed the details of a financial quid-pro-quo before the deal. Under this, Bofors would pay money to a foundation in Sweden to make it easier for the payments to reach Indians. Sten claimed that kickbacks of 50 million SEK were paid, which went to Quattrochi from Bofors. He also claimed that Rajiv Gandhi hid certain information from the Parliament and was complicit in the scam, causing an immense uproar. The demand to reopen the case had support among the parliamentarians. A BJP MP, Meenakshi Lekhi, demanded the opening of the ‘boxes’. She said that the ‘ghost of Bofors’ would continue to haunt the Parliament, and that there were documents related to the discussions between Rajiv Gandhi and the then Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, which proved the same.
Congress Vice President, Rahul Gandhi evaded the issue, saying, “They (BJP) have been responding for the last 30 years, let them continue to do so for another 30 years.” Party President Sonia Gandhi’s response was more forceful. “Don’t let them raise Bofors,” she told the party, “They are trying to taint my husband and our former leader. We cannot allow this and the party will go to any extent to protect the image of Rajiv-ji.” She had also asked her party members to ‘hit back with their scams’ if attempts are made to tarnish the Gandhi name.
PAC takes a strong stance
Since a sub-committee of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) with no Congress members has called a probe, the issue cannot be brushed under the carpet. While the BJP claims that there was disruption caused by Congress MPs by tearing and throwing papers on the Chair — eventually leading to their suspension — this also seems to be a convenient time for the issue to prop up as the stand-off with China intensifies. Contentious issues of national security and public funds must be discussed in the Parliament and the due process must be followed in an investigation. The media must not be silenced and it must ‘tarnish’ images. On the other hand, an issue of this importance must not be politicised and made into a smokescreen for the party in power.
Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt
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