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Bofors: What India does not know

By An Observer
January 18, 2006 17:53 IST
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The columnist, who is writing on condition of anyonymity, is a retired senior Government of India officer with extensive experience within and outside India.

I have never been involved in the investigation of the Bofors case. I have never had -- and do not have even now -- much inside knowledge of the goings-on in L'Affaire Bofors.

What then is my qualification for having the pretension to write this article? I happened to be living in Europe when the Bofors bombshell struck New Delhi one evening atn the beginning of 1987, triggering off a panic meeting convened by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi late in the night after dinner to discuss damage control.

The meeting was attended, amongst others, by the then heads of the Intelligence Bureau and the Central Bureau of Investigation, the acting head of the Research and Analysis Wing -- since its head was out of New Delhi on tour -- and some of Rajiv Gandhi's close political and bureaucratic advisors.

The meeting claimed its first victim shortly after the bombshell. The acting head of RAW, who had already been designated by Rajiv Gandhi before the bombshell to take over as its head on the retirement of the then head, found himself shifted out to another organisation for having been unaware of the coming bombshell.

I continued living in Europe for nearly two years after the bombshell and had the opportunity now and then of observing from close quarters the comings and goings between India and Europe of investigators, crisis managers, damage control experts, political leaders, journalists and many others, who took a benign or malign interest in the scandal and its cover-up.

CBI may quiz Quattrocchi in Italy

Immediately after the first news of the scandal came out of Stockholm, I was asked from New Delhi what I thought of it and whether I had any advice to give.

I said, "I don't know Sweden. I have never been there. I have no contacts there. But, I understand the people who are making the allegations enjoy a high level of credibility there in governmental and non-governmental circles. Take them seriously. Don't try to discredit them through disinformation."

Unfortunately, that was exactly what the Government of India did.

Its damage control strategy had two tracks. First, overtly give the impression of taking the allegations seriously and investigating them thoroughly. The law should take its own course, as every lawbreaker is fond of saying and then preventing just that.

Second, covertly try to discredit those disseminating the allegations in India and abroad through disinformation and dirty tricks.

Even now, after nearly 19 years, this is what the government led by Dr Manmohan Singh seems to be doing.

The famous Hinduja brothers played an active role in the pursuit of both tracks. They were suspects in the case and yet managed to emerge as discreet advisors of the CBI on how to investigate the case and of the Prime Minister's Office as to how to control the political damage.

How many times senior CBI officials visited Geneva, London and Stockholm for secret confabulations with the Hindujas and their high-level European contacts.

Just who is Ottavio Quattrocchi?

The Hinduja brothers were and continue to be fascinating personalities. No other Indian origin business family abroad has done so much for India and in the process for itself.

They had one working principle in life -- never put all your eggs in the same basket.

How close they were to the Shah of Iran and his family and how close they are to the Iranian ayatollahs. How close they were to the Democratic Party in the US and how close they are to the Republicans. How close they were to Margaret Thatcher and John Major and how close they are to Tony Blair and his wife Cherie, who takes their advice for buying saris! How close they were to Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and how close they equally are to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Jyoti Basu.

Their annual Diwali receptions hosted in London and Geneva have to be seen to be believed. There, you meet everybody who is somebody in India and Europe.

Major political parties in India and the UK consider it to be in their interest to depute someone to attend these receptions on their behalf.

When the Hindujas hosted one of the Diwali receptions in 1987, P V Narasimha Rao, then a minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government, was in Europe. The Hindujas were keen he should attend. Because of the raging controversy over Bofors, Rao declined. Prompt came the instructions to him from the PMO to attend, since the Hinduja brothers were supposedly helpful in the investigation of the Bofors case.

Another fact witnessed while living in Europe was that many political leaders, bureaucrats and others had no qualms in accepting not only the Hindujas' invitations for fabulous parties, but also other facilities such as free hotel rooms for themselves or their families, limousines for sightseeing, etc.

Sheela Bhatt: This is not about Bofors

Some memories of the Hindujas and our political leaders: They hosted then Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Dr Farooq Abdullah during a visit paid by him to Geneva at the height of the Bofors controversy.

An official accompanying him advised him not to accept their hospitality because of Bofors. 'It might be raised in the state assembly,' he whispered into Dr Abdullah's ears.

'So what?' replied Dr Abdullah loudly. 'Let it be raised. I will admit it. I have known them for years. I am not going to avoid them just because of this scandal.'

After the bombshell exploded, R Venkataraman, then the President of India, visited Geneva and Berne, the Swiss capital, to inaugurate an Indian cultural festival. One of the Hinduja brothers rang up the Indian diplomatic mission in Geneva and said the President's office had requested him to arrange a discreet check-up of the President by a ear expert in Switzerland.

He wanted the Indian mission to provide a time slot for this in the President's programme without indicating that the timeslot was for a medical check-up.

Pritish Nandy: The Hindujas again!

A senior diplomat of the mission sent a message to the President's office for confirmation of what the Hinduja brother had said. Prompt came a phone call from the President's office strongly denying any such request to the Hindujas.

Another phone call went to the Hindujas pulling them up for mentioning this to the Indian mission in Geneva.

They organised a check-up at Berne without the Indian mission's knowledge.

H K L Bhagat, then the minister for parliamentary affairs in the Rajiv Gandhi Cabinet, visited Geneva to attend a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The wife of the head of the Indian mission was away in India. His servant was not available. So, he requested the Hinduja brother living in Geneva to host a dinner for the minister and invite senior political personalities from Geneva and Berne as well as senior diplomats of the Indian mission and members of an important Indian delegation, which was in Geneva to attend a UN meeting.

The Hinduja brother happily agreed and invitations were issued. I was one of those invited.

In view of the Bofors scandal, I was surprised the minister accepted the invitation. I rang up the ambassador and asked him how Bhagat accepted the invitation. The ambassador replied: "I have not yet informed him about the Hinduja dinner. I will tell him after his arrival."

'CBI playing neutral role'

"Won't the minister be angry that you asked the Hindujas to host this dinner without consulting him?" I asked.

Prompt came the reply from the ambassador: "No, no. I know our politicians. They like to wallow in the house of the Hindujas."

A couple of hours later, after Bhagat arrived, I got a call from the office of the ambassador stating that Bhagat would not be attending the dinner. His office intriguingly added: "The ambassador said it would be up to you to decide whether you would attend or not."

My Indian friends in Geneva, who had also received the invitation, told me they had received a similar intriguing message from the ambassador's office.

I rang the ambassador and asked him what happened. He replied: "You were right. The old man blew up when I told him I had accepted an invitation from the Hindujas on his behalf and asked me to cancel the dinner. I couldn't cancel the dinner since the Hindujas are the hosts. So, I asked my office to tell all Indian invitees about it and say it was up to them to decide whether they would attend or not -- in view of the minister's decision not to attend."

I did not. I was told most of the Indian invitees dropped out. The guests at the dinner were mainly foreigners. Even though the Hindujas told the guests that the minister was unwell, they all guessed it must have been due to Bofors.

Bhagat went up in my estimation.

Another Indian leader who spurned the Hindujas was V P Singh, commerce minister in the Rajiv Gandhi Cabinet. This was long before the Bofors bombshell. Singh used to visit Geneva often to attend General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade meetings.

Once, the Hinduja brother living in Geneva came to know of the hotel where Singh was staying and tried to contact him over the phone in order to invite him for dinner. Singh refused to take the call and pulled up the Indian diplomatic mission for telling the Hindujas which hotel he was staying in.

They did not have to tell him. The Hinduja brothers were much better informed of the comings and goings between New Delhi and Europe than any Indian diplomat. Often, the Indian diplomats got the first inkling of the intended travel programmes of our political leaders from the Hindujas.

I came into the investigation peripherally when the Joint Parliamentary Committee to enquire into the Bofors scandal sent a team of senior officials from the CBI, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and other agencies to Europe to make field enquiries on behalf of the JPC.

'Fresh freeze on Q's accounts will take time'

I received a request from New Delhi to help the team in any way I can in view of my supposed knowledge of Europe.

I received only two requests from the team. The first was to have an informal meeting with persons figuring on a list of possible witnesses, which had been given to them by the Prime Minister's Office, and report to them on my impressions of them before they formally met them for recording their statements.

They formally met only those whom I said had no knowledge or denied the allegations. They refrained from meeting those who, I said, seemed to have some knowledge.

The second request was to check the addresses of some people, which had been given to them by the PMO. I did not find anybody by those names in the addresses given by them. But I did find them in other addresses. When I gave the correct addresses to the team, they did not try to go there and meet them. They said the instruction to them was only to meet them in the addresses given to them.

I got the impression that the team was unhappy that I took some initiative to find out their correct addresses. They informed Delhi that no persons by those names were found in the addresses given to them, without mentioning that I had traced them in other addresses.

Not all journalists covered themselves with glory. I know of some who did excellent investigative reporting. I know of others who helped the government in the cover-up and in discrediting V P Singh. A journalist of a leading national daily let himself be used by the PMO in the psywar to have V P Singh discredited through the so-called St Kitts' affair.

Even the hands of V P Singh were not as clean as he would have liked the nation to believe. He and some of his close advisors like Vinod Pande, his Cabinet secretary, did not hesitate to stoop to questionable means in order to have the credibility of Rajiv Gandhi and his family damaged when he was the prime minister.

Pandey did something which I considered highly objectionable. He ordered the hiring of the services of a West German private detective by an Indian agency to make enquiries about the alleged involvement of Rajiv Gandhi and his family in the Bofors scandal.

Imagine the prime minister of India or his chief adviser hiring a foreign private detective to enquire about his leader of the Opposition and his family. Had an American president or his aides done a similar thing, knowledge of it would have led to an impeachment.

Many of the reports carried by sections of the media after V P Singh became prime minister about the alleged involvement of Rajiv Gandhi and his family in the scandal were based on information collected by this West German detective and passed on by Pandey to journalists close to him.

I found it difficult to believe that Pandey could have done all this without the knowledge, if not the approval, of his prime minister.

The Bofors saga goes on like a Greek tragedy -- never ending, with the audience watching excitedly though knowing there would be no end to this tragedy.

National scandals bring out the best and the worst in a nation. We saw it in the United States' Watergate. It brought out the worst in American society. And also the best.

The Bofors saga has brought out only the worst in our society, our political class and our bureaucracy so far, despite 19 years of the drama.

Also read: Complete coverage: Bofors, the smoking gun
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An Observer