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30 April, 2012

Probes that get nowhere

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Just as the Congress party, which heads the ruling United Progressive Alliance, thought the Bofors scandal, which brought down the Rajiv Gandhi government more than two decades ago, had been finally laid to rest, it has come back to haunt it and its head.

The scandal relates to kickbacks paid by the Swedish arms maker Bofors to secure its biggest ever deal of $1.3 billion for the supply of 410 howitzers to India and a supply contract for almost twice that amount.

Led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the opposition rushed in to make the most out of the Congress party’s discomfiture. But a worse embarrassment was in store for the BJP. A court slapped a four-year jail term on its former president, Bangaru Laxman, in another corruption case.

The Bofors scandal was broken by the Swedish radio which said the company had bribed Indian politicians. The names of Rajiv Gandhi and Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, a friend of the Gandhi family, came up in later media reports. VP Singh, who became prime minister following the Congress party’s defeat, referred the matter to the Central Bureau of Investigation, which registered a corruption case.

In 2004, long after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the courts exonerated him but the continuing proceedings against Quattrocchi remained a source of worry for the party, now headed by his Italian-born wife, Sonia Gandhi. Last year the courts granted the CBI’s request to drop the proceedings against Quattrocchi as he could not be brought to India.

Former Swedish police chief Sten Lindstrom, who had leaked a large number of documents relating to the kickback payments to Geneva-based Indian journalist Chitra Subramaniam-Duella, leading to a series of investigative stories in The Hindu, rekindled memories of the scandal last week with an interview to her to mark its silver jubilee. 

Lindstrom said he had turned whistleblower as he could not count on Bofors or the Swedish and Indian governments to get to the bottom of the deal in which rules were flouted, institutions bypassed and honest Swedish officials and politicians kept in the dark.

Lindstrom’s leaks did not yield expected results as there was no one in the Indian government or investigating team who shared his passionate desire to get to the bottom of the matter.

The CBI, which is directly under the Prime Minister, has a fair record of successful prosecution of offenders in ordinary crimes. However, its performance in cases involving top politicians, senior bureaucrats and high police officials is generally poor.

Recognising that the agency is susceptible to political influence, the higher courts have taken upon themselves the task of overseeing investigation of some sensational cases and asked it to report directly to them. The 2G spectrum cases in which two former ministers, a member of parliament and several high officials figure among the accused are among them.

The CBI’s failure to pursue the Bofors investigation vigorously even under non-Congress governments shows the issue of political control is not a simple one. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government, which served a full five-year term, too could not get to the bottom of the matter.

Lindstrom, in his interview, made two significant revelations. Fearing the media campaign might force India to cancel the contract, Bofors had sent its top executives to disclose the names of beneficiaries of kickbacks but no one of consequence received them. Politicians who met him and vowed to unravel the truth if they came to power did nothing when they had the opportunity.

Lindstrom has raised the Bofors issue again without high expectation. “Maybe we will get nowhere,” he said, “but silence cannot be the answer.”

The moral of the Bofors story is that politicians tend to view cases of corruption as grist to the mill of election propaganda rather than as acts of misdemeanour that call for punishment.

Ironically, while those involved in the Bofors affair, a real scandal, have got away, Bangaru Laxman has been convicted in a spurious arms deal. He took bribe not from an arms dealer but from a journalist posing as one in a sting operation conducted while the NDA was in power. Since there are two higher courts to which he can appeal, the present verdict cannot be taken as the last word. Eleven other cases filed on the basis of the same sting operation are still before the trial court. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 30, 2012.

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