Ahead of his visit to Sweden, President Pranab Mukherjee has set off a controversy by pointing out that it is yet to be established the Bofors gun deal was a “scandal.”
“No Indian court has given verdict on (the Bofors case)…how could you say it is a scandal?” the President of India rhetorically asks Sweden’s leading daily Dagens Nyhetter (DN).
You are right, Mr. President. Bofors was not a scandal – it was a mega-scandal. It was the story of how India and its institutions shook at their roots to protect one person and his few friends. It was a story of how India’s most popular Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi betrayed the faith reposed in him, his bureaucrats, the executive and the judiciary. When he said at Congress’s 100th anniversary in Mumbai that he would rid the system of influence peddlers and touts, I believed him. When I started working on the Bofors story, it was in the belief that I was making a contribution to that commitment to rid India of corruption. Little did I know then that people close to Mr. Gandhi would be among the prime accused.
Bofors is not just about India. It was also a scandal that shook a government in Sweden – the government of Olof Palme who diverted development aid to finance the bribes and escalating costs of the Indian deal. It was a scandal that pushed the Swiss government to transfer secret bank documents to India after a ten year court battle in the Alpine nation. Following that success, Bern tightened its laws on governing matters of mutual assistance to third countries in criminal matters.
To say there was no scandal because no Indian court has called it one is irresponsible. It is damaging to Indians as it shows us up as a people unwilling to take responsibility and move on. It comes at a time when the world is looking at India to invest despite our reputation. It’s a steep climb for Indians who are committed to the country and want to work honestly. The president has damaged those efforts by his remarks.
The Bofors-India Howitzer deal relates to the sale of 144 mm Howitzers to India by the Swedish arms company Bofors in the late 1980s. The guns were excellent, the price was competitive but there was a problem. There were bribes and they were paid to the late Ottavio Quattrocchi, a close friend of the Rajiv Gandhi family. The question that gets asked even today is – was Mr. Gandhi involved? To date, there is no piece of information linking him to the payoffs, but he unleashed a massive cover-up involving every arm of the government and spared no one. Even the army was tarred.
As a reporter who covered the story for ten years including securing the 350 documents that nailed the lies peddled by the governments of India and Sweden, neither me nor my family escaped scrutiny. It came close – my little son was threatened. Even that is par for the course. What is not acceptable, Mr. President, is that you attempt to re-write history from an untenable position because that is what Swedish journalists have commented on your remarks. Bofors is not history in Sweden as you think it is. It is part of their history.
The Swedish National Audit Bureau (SNAB), the Swedish police, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice and Police in Switzerland, the judges and courts in the canton of Geneva, to name just a few, are the official places which enquired into the guns for bribes allegation and concluded that that was the case. There were parliamentary hearings in Sweden and politicians were questioned. The Swedish state television recently made a documentary on the Bofors-India case detailing what it meant for Sweden to learn that Olof Palme was fully aware of the corruption in the Indian deal.
There was no conviction in India because Quattrocchi was invited to flee New Delhi (from his home in Golf Links) as soon as I filed a copy linking him to the bribes. Who tipped him off? There was no case in India because there was no pressure on Sweden to bring the CEO of Bofors the late Martin Ardbo to justice in India.
I will always remember an interview with the late General Krishnaswami Sundarji. Commenting on the cover up, he said the kind of damage that was being done to the system would take years to recover, if recovery was possible. How does the President hope to build trust and strengthen relationship with a country when he refuses to acknowledge a very tumultuous period in Indo-Swedish history?