MURALI KRISHNAN writes from New Delhi: Exactly 20 years ago, today, Swedish Radio jolted the national conscience here with a report that the Swedish armament company Bofors had paid bribes to key Indian leaders and defence officials through secret Swiss bank accounts to win a $1.3 billion contract for howitzer guns for the Indian Army.
That explosive report, which was immediately denied by the government with a standard statement circulated through PTI that it was “false, baseless and mischievous”, immediately sent alarm bells ringing in the establishment and led to a flurry of meetings between then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and top officials.
What subsequently came to be known as the Bofors corruption scandal has come to dog India’s political landscape for the next two decades, causing the downfall of the Gandhi government in 1989, and plaguing every government in the country since then without showing any signs of resolution or conviction of the alleged wrongdoers.
However, this tortuous and meandering federal investigation, which was meant to pin down the beneficiaries of the Rs.640 million pay-offs for the 155-mm howitzers that otherwise have served the army well, has got lost in a tangle of judicial web across several countries with the sole surviving accused, Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrochi, still evading arrest after surfacing in far away Argentina.
Despite prolonged court battles, the countless Letters Rogatory (LRs) sent to Panama, Liechenstein and Luxembourg for tracking the movement of monies linked to the scandal, the setting up of a parliamentary commission and a mountain of documentation, there has not been one conviction.
Ironically, this case, which was responsible for the Congress party’s defeat in the 1989 general elections, leaving it with fewer than 200 of the 543 seats, has cost the exchequer Rs.2.5 billion in this costly police investigation!
As a major corruption scandal that hogged the political setting in the 1980s, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and several others were accused of receiving kickbacks from the now defunct AB Bofors.
But even while the case was being investigated, Gandhi was assassinated May 21, 1991.
It was only after 12 years, in October 1999, that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed its first chargesheet naming as middlemen the Dubai-based businessman Win Chadha, Italian businessman Quattrocchi, former Indian defence secretary S.K. Bhatnagar, former Bofors top honcho Martin Ardbo and Bofors company as recipients. The late Gandhi’s name too figured in the chargesheet as “an accused not sent for trial”.
A year later, the investigating agency filed a supplementary chargesheet, naming and linking the Hinduja brothers—Gopichand, Prakashchand and Srichand—to the kickbacks in the gun deal.
In spite of procuring valuable documents from Swiss banks after years of legal wrangling, the CBI was still unable to pinpoint the names of recipients and bank accounts, the transfer of monies through several continents and other related material.
In fact, the opposite happened. The case slowly yet surely began to fall apart, for reasons, sometimes, outside the CBI’s control.
Firstly, three of the accused—Win Chadha, Bhatnagar and Arbdo—died during the course of the probe. Then, in 2004 the Delhi High Court quashed the charges of bribery against Gandhi.
If that was not enough, in May 2005, a high court quashed the framing of charges against the Hinduja brothers.
While delivering his judgment, Judge R.S. Sodhi found fault with the CBI for its failure to submit originals or authenticated copies of relevant documents on the basis of which the investigating agency wanted to prosecute the brothers.
Based on this dubious material, to allow prosecution for many more years, in respect of a transaction of more than 20 years vintage, is sheer persecution, waste of public time and money,” said Sodhi.
The lone remaining accused in the case, Quattrocchi—known to be close to the Gandhis and who emerged as a powerful broker in the ’80s between big business and the Indian government—had already made good his escape from India on the night of July 30, 1993 from India.
Former Indian ambassador to Sweden B. M. Oza, author of The Ambassador’s Evidence who was in Stockholm when the deal was negotiated, maintains the case is going nowhere.
“Most of the dramatis personae are dead. The only one living is Quattrocchi. Even if he is brought to India, he’s not going to disclose the political payoffs as he’s already stated that Rajiv Gandhi was a good family friend. So, honestly, this is the end of the tunnel,” Oza, who is now retired and lives in New Delhi, says.
The CBI’s umpteen efforts to extradite Quattrocchi have failed. And despite mounting their best legal defence, a Malaysian court finally denied India’s request for Quattrocchi’s extradition in December 2002.
Inexplicably, two of Quattrocchi’s British bank accounts, containing 3 million euros and $1 million, which had been frozen in 2003 by a court order, were de-frozen on Jan 11, 2006.
Former additional solicitor general B.K. Datta, acting on behalf of the government and CBI, requested the British government that Quattrocchi’s accounts be de-frozen on grounds of insufficient evidence to link them to the Bofors payoff.
The BJP, on its part, blames the Congress for its casual approach to the case and for being soft on Quattrocchi.
“When we were in power, we got Quattrocchi’s accounts frozen and got a red corner notice issued. The Congress helped him escape and got his accounts defrozen. That gives rise to suspicion,” says party vice-president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.
Though the moribund case again acquired some thrust when Quattrocchi was picked up by the Argentine authorities in February this year his subsequent release and the absence of an extradition treaty with Argentina has only fuelled speculation that this may be the last one has heard of the high-flying and well-connected business tycoon.
Even though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has assured parliament that the law of the land will prevail” and investigators were being given “full freedom” to purse the Bofors case, there is considerable skepticism whether a government of the Congress, whose leader is Sonia Gandhi and whose late husband was a suspect in the case, would seriously bring the Bofors riddle to its conclusion.
In a political drama spanning more than two decades, the Bofors case—with its manifold ramifications—has come to symbolize not only venality and brazenness of the ruling establishment, or the limitations of the criminal justice system in transcending boundaries of complex national laws, but may well go down as one of the unsolved riddles of Indian history.