Guns and Poses

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  1. Ray

    Ray The Chairman Defence Professionals Moderator

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    Guns and poses

    26 May 2012

    N K Singh recounts how the Rajiv Gandhi government incriminated itself on three counts and the Congress-led UPA government did its best to bury the Bofors investigation

    The recent interview given by former Swedish police investigator, Mr Sten Lindstrom, on the Bofors deal, has once again brought to the fore the controversy about this contract ~ one of the main issues over which the 1989 Lok Sabha election was fought. In particular, Mr Lindstorm’s remarks that Rajiv Gandhi did nothing about the massive cover-up and that the evidence against Mr Ottavio Quattrocchi was conclusive have generated a lot of heat. Notwithstanding the belief that people’s memories are short, they are not prepared to forget allegations of this sort at high places. In respect of this deal, the Rajiv Gandhi government incriminated itself most on three counts.

    The first was the way it reacted to the Swedish radio broadcast of 16 April, 1987 that Bofors had paid commissions to win the contract. This was not straightaway very damaging as such things can happen behind the back of any government. A prompt transparent enquiry could have nipped the trouble in bud. In contrast, the response was one of successive denials. Late Rajiv Gandhi was clearly on the defensive.

    The first few steps seemed in order. Our then Ambassador in Sweden, BM Oza, who was holidaying in the UK, was recalled from leave and asked to verify facts and report. The Ambassador was able to contact the acting chief of Swedish radio, who told him that the story had been filed by a headquarters correspondent, Magnus Neilson, who possessed details of payment of commissions by Bofors, “in the form of bank transfers of sums of money through Swedish Central bank into coded accounts of the agents in the Swiss banks”. The acting chief, however, declined to pass on further information. Nonetheless, Ambassador Oza succeeded in obtaining a tape of the radio broadcast, which he sent to India.

    But the powers here at home insisted on immediately getting a denial from the Swedish authorities. The Swedish state’s secretary for foreign trade, Carl John Oberg whom Ambassador Oza ultimately contacted, appropriately said that the first step was investigation and not outright denial of the radio report. In India, not only were the allegations rubbished, but the Congress working committee, in a resolution adopted on 18 April, 1987, presided over by Rajiv Gandhi, said “an atmosphere of cynicism and despair is being fostered undermining the confidence and determination of the nation.” The fact of the matter was that even though the controversy broke out on 16 April, 1987 with the Swedish radio broadcast, and the nation and Parliament were repeatedly told that nobody, howsoever high, “will be allowed to go free”, nothing worthwhile was done. It was only when the VP Singh government assumed office that a regular case was registered by the CBI on 22 June, 1990 and an investigation taken up.

    The second count was the way all suggestions and moves to coerce Bofors to disclose details of the deal were shot down in some way or the other at the highest level here in government. We have the corroboration on this from Ambassador Oza and late Army chief K Sunderji. Much more damning information, however, came later, in 2010, in an account given by former comptroller-general late CG Somiah, in his book The Honest Always Stand Alone.

    Arun Nehru and Arun Singh, close friends, had been inducted by Rajiv Gandhi, as ministers of state, in home and defence respectively. Because of their proximity to the PM, both of them wielded enormous power. Ultimately, however, both left the government under circumstances leading to a lot of speculation. One persistent view was that Arun Singh left the Rajiv Gandhi government on account of his differences over Bofors.

    This has been confirmed by Somiah in his book. He writes that much later when he questioned Arun Singh during a chance meeting on a flight from Hyderabad to Delhi as to why he had resigned, Singh told him he had no other option but to do so when the Prime Minister did not support his decision to invite the chairman of Bofors for a discussion in Delhi to clarify certain aspects of the case. He writes further that NN Vohra, then additional secretary, ministry of defence, who had worked with Arun Singh, confirmed this account later. Much earlier, Mr Vohra had been quoted as saying that Rajiv Gandhi had “lit up”, at him, when he had gone to him with some such message. Somiah goes on to write that after General Sunderji had retired and settled in Coonoor, the latter told him he had sent a secret note to the Prime Minister, suggesting cancellation of the entire deal with Bofors, but the note was returned to him by SK Bhatnagar, then defence secretary, without any action on his suggestion. Bhatnagar confirmed this to him, though he had his own grievance against the CBI, for prosecuting him in the case.

    Somiah then added that Bhatnagar had shared some secrets with him that unravelled the Bofors case, “but they necessarily have to remain secret”. Somiah was well known for his honesty and integrity, and what he has written should be believed. The only regret is that he stopped short of unravelling the secrets shared by Bhatnagar which should have been disclosed in public interest even at a later stage. But whatever he has disclosed is very damaging, I think, to Rajiv Gandhi. A joint parliamentary committee that was ultimately constituted did not inspire confidence. The Opposition boycotted it.

    The third, of course, was the case of Italian national, Mr Ottavio Quattrochhi. In the long history of the Bofors case, the action of the government to help de-freeze the London accounts of Mr Quattrochhi was perhaps the most sordid chapter. It was worse than even what Mr Madhavsinh Solanki, foreign minister under PV Narasimha Rao, had done when he had quietly passed on an unsigned memo to his Swiss counterpart at Davos, suggesting suspension of investigation in Switzerland. Mr Quattrochhi was the last to enter the scene in this deal. His AE Services came into the picture on 3 August, 1985, and its solicitor, Mr Bob Wilson, signed an agreement with Bofors on 15 November, 1985, for payment of 3 per cent commission by the company to it, but which, significantly, also stipulated that commission would not be paid to AE Services if the contract was not awarded by 26 March, 1986. And lo and behold, the contract was cleared in double quick time by the Union Cabinet on 23 March, 1986.

    In June 2003, Interpol reportedly alerted the CBI that it had detected two accounts held by Mr Quattrochhi and his wife, Maria, with BSIAG Bank, London. The accounts held a total of Rs 21 crore. On the strength of a Letter Rogatory obtained by the CBI from the designated special court in Delhi, the two London accounts were frozen in July 2003. The CBI had contended in its petition to British authorities that Mr Quattrochhi “in a deceitful manner had been transferring funds from one account to another to evade detection by the law”. The agency had also claimed that it was believed that “the amount of three million slashed away in the account was part of 7.34 million US dollars paid to him (Mr Quattrochhi) by AB Bofors through AE Services.” The Crown prosecution service had argued on behalf of CBI before the United Kingdom Court of Appeal that there was need to probe the source of deposit and the British High Court had upheld the contention of the agency then.

    The beginning of 2006, however, saw a complete somersault by the Government of India in pursuing the case against Mr Quattrochhi. A stunned nation heard Union minister of law, Mr HR Bhardwaj, telling a television channel, on 12 January, 2006 that the government had conveyed to the Crown prosecution service in UK its opinion to defreeze the two bank accounts held by Mr Quattrochhi. “We have conveyed to them the recent rulings of Delhi High Court rejecting the case against Hinduja brothers as well as status of investigation,” Mr Bhardwaj said.

    It transpired that in an unprecedented move, the additional solicitor-general of India, Mr B Dutta, was sent all the way to London to brief the Crown Prosecution Service that CBI did not have any evidence to link the deposits of Mr Quattrochhi in a London bank with the Bofors pay-offs. We knew so far of investigating and senior law officers of the government being deputed abroad for pursuing cases or nabbing the culprits, but never for helping an accused getting out of legal clutches, particularly one who had been evading appearance, and against whom a non-bailable warrant and a Interpol red-corner notice had been issued. Why this compulsion to help?

    The High Court in London ordered on 11 January, 2006 that the two accounts be de-freezed. A lawyer, Mr Ajay Agrawal, moved the Supreme Court the next day for directions to the government to prevent de-freezing of the two bank accounts in London. A three-member Bench comprising Chief Justice Mr YK Sabharwal, Mr Justice CK Thakker and Mr Justice RV Raveendran made it clear on 15 January, 2006 that it must be ensured that Mr Quattrochhi did not withdraw the money until further orders. Political parties, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist), an ally of the government, was outraged and wanted the government to retrace its steps. The BJP alleged collusion and asked for the dismissal of Mr Bhardwaj.

    Nothing worked. During the hearing of the petition on 21 January, 2006, the Supreme Court was informed by the additional solicitor-general of India, Mr Gopal Subramanium that Mr Quattrochhi had withdrawn Rs 21 crore on 16 January, 2006 itself, soon after the order of the court to maintain the status quo. When Mr Subramanium told the court that there was “no longer any reasonable prospect of the case against Quattrochhi proceeding to trial,” the Bench told Mr Subramanium: “Why don’t you file a closure report before the special court?” Mr Subramanium replied that the CBI had now taken the position that there was no case to proceed against Mr Quattrochhi. To the delight of all in the government and others who wanted to help Mr Quattrochhi, a fait accompli was presented. Ultimately, on 29 September, 2009, Mr Subramanium told the Supreme Court Bench comprising Chief Justice Mr KG Balakrishnan and Mr Justice P Sathasivam and Mr Justice BS Chauhan that “the Central government has consented for withdrawal of the prosecution of Quattrochhi.” He further indicated that the CBI would file the closure report in the court of the chief metropolitan magistrate on 3 October, 2009. The CBI duly did so and the prosecution against Mr Quattrochhi was withdrawn. This is how a grand burial was given to the Bofors case.

    The writer is a former joint director, CBI, who retired as director-general, Bureau of Police Research and Development
     
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