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This is not about Bofors

By Sheela Bhatt
January 16, 2006 15:26 IST
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Hansraj Bhardwaj can do it. He can go to any extent!" said a senior Congress leader about his government's law minister.

He was reacting to Bhardwaj's recommending the additional solicitor general not to oppose defreezing of the British bank accounts of Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, a prime accused in the infamous Bofors case.

The Supreme Court has now said that keeping Quattrocchi's accounts locked is in the interest of the nation.

Congressmen are saying the nation should believe that party president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were not aware of Bhardwaj's actions, which are related to a case being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

They claim that Bhardwaj can indulge in such a misadventure.

Take action against Bharadwaj: Jaitley to PM

In a subtle way, we are also asked to believe that today's Sonia Gandhi has nothing to do with her Italian connections, which flourished some 25 years ago.

Even if one is bored to death reading the stories and 'scoops' related to the Bofors case, what Bhardwaj has done has very few parallels.

His action is worth debating, not for the sake of the Bofors case but for sake of its impact on Sonia's Gandhi's public persona.

Also because none other than an Indian law minister, whose job is to uphold the law and ensure that the law takes its own course, is making a mockery of the law, the judiciary and his responsibilities as law minister.

In one of the Bofors case judgments, Justice Prem Kumar wrote in November 2003 that 'Quattrocchi is holding money in trust for somebody.'

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There has not been any other judgment yet countering Justice Kumar's arguments vis-à-vis the money held by Quattrocchi, a man who never cared to subject himself to the laws of India.

Bhardwaj has not taken into confidence CBI Director Vijay Shanker but has depended on a low-level officer who is heading the prosecution division under Shanker.

The law minister has also ignored the two cases pending in Indian courts against Quattrocchi.

But what should be worrisome to Indians is that his actions are not merely related to the Bofors scandal.

They throw light on the internal functioning of this government in which junior ministers take the prime minister for granted and not consult him or keep him in the loop on important matters.

Bhardwaj's action also shows how incurable Congressmen's collective sickness called sycophancy is.

Bofors payoffs: CBI to keep digging

Last December, Bhardwaj sent Additional Solicitor General B Dutta to London to tell the Crown Prosecution Service that the sum of around Rs 210 million lying in two of Quattrocchi's bank accounts are not related to the alleged payoffs in the Bofors deal.

That will lead to a defreezing of the accounts and Quattrocchi -- who is based in Milan, Italy -- will be able to withdraw his money.

The law minister doesn't care Quattrocchi is still wanted by India's apex investigative agency.

"Is Bhardwaj not obstructing justice in a sub judice case? He can be questioned by the court where the Bofors case is still being heard," says a lawyer involved in the case.

Congress spokespersons Abhishek Singhvi and Jayanti Natarajan -- who are also well-known lawyers -- and Prime Minister Singh's Media Advisor Sanjaya Baru want the nation to believe that both Dr Singh and Sonia Gandhi were kept in the dark about Bhardwaj's actions.

Although common sense prompts otherwise, for the sake of their credibility, let us believe them for a moment.

Bofors: BJP, CPI-M ask tough questions

Then, the question arises, why did Bhardwaj take up Quattrocchi's case? Does he know him?

Bhardwaj is a self-confessed friend of the Hinduja brothers, who were accused and later acquitted in the Bofors case. There is no evidence yet of the law minister's direct connections whatsoever with Quattrocchi, and there is much less information on the Hindujas' and Quattrocchi's connections.

Some Congressmen are also putting a spin on the incident to 'explain' Bhardwaj's misadventures.

One, he was trying to 'please' Sonia Gandhi because Quattrocchi was her family friend two decades ago.

Two, in May 2005, Bhardwaj handled the Hindujas' case in a similar fashion and nothing happened. The media didn't take it up. Even then, the law ministry briefed the lawyers contrary to the CBI's known stand -- given to the same court in an affidavit.

Since the nation didn't protest, this might have emboldened Bhardwaj to 'help' Quattrocchi.

Technically speaking, Bhardwaj has taken the decision to bail out Quattrocchi on the basis of the same judgment of May 2005 in the Hindujas' case.

Blog: Bofors, yawn!

The judgment stands challenged in two public interest litigations in the Supreme Court because it is alleged to be 'non-maintainable'.

What is even more astonishing is Bhardwaj's sympathy for Quattrocchi -- in front of television cameras.

It is wrong to freeze somebody's accounts without proof, he said when the newly launched news channel CNN-IBN exposed his actions.

Incidentally, Bhardwaj's statement came just 10 minutes after attending a Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Singh.

Let us go back to the question: Just why did Bhardwaj's heart bleed for Quattrocchi's money -- which has been frozen forthe last three years -- and not for those millions of Indians who are languishing in Indian jails for years?

Off the record, a Congressman claimed Bhardwaj, whose term in the Rajya Sabha will end soon, might have been seeking his re-selection from the Upper House of Parliament by doing a good turn to the Gandhi family. He might have thought it may 'please' Sonia Gandhi.

Of course, this is conjecture, not a fact.

But, the unanswered part of the story is: Why should Sonia Gandhi be seen to be 'pleased' at all if her government helps her 'former' family friend Quattrocchi?

Sonia Gandhi would score better if she were seen to be helping the CBI in bringing Quattrocchi to India.

Unlike us, is Bhardwaj unaware that Sonia Gandhi in her new, post-May 18, 2004 avatar is much more cautious and careful about her political image than ever before?

Why does a Congressman as old as Bhardwaj think that helping Quattrocchi can get him into Sonia Gandhi's good books?

If the argument -- that Sonia Gandhi can be 'pleased' by defreezing Quattrocchi's accounts -- is just not true, then why did Bhardwaj rake up this entirely avoidable issue at all? That too keeping his prime minister and his mentor in the dark?

How does Bhardwaj stand to gain if his mentor's credibility gets eroded?

CBI mum on Quattrocchi issue

Isn't Sonia Gandhi's credibility far more valuable than Quattrocchi's Rs 210 million?

Bhardwaj has played with fire.

Agreed, the Bofors case itself is a dead issue for the electorate but the issue of her foreign origin has not yet been buried in the political battlefield of New Delhi.

Just recently, Pramod Mahajan declared again that 'the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) will never accept her as PM.'

Even those not too pleasantly disposed towards the Congress will agree that Sonia Gandhi has gained iconic status after her decision to give up the post of prime minister. With that one stroke, she won millions of Indian hearts -- who are not necessarily Congress members and many of who, in the past, might have believed that the Congress is tainted with Bofors money.

Sonia Gandhi never looked as Indian as she does now.

Is it wise for her or her cronies to 'help' an infamous Italian businessman -- and revive memories of her Italian origin and continuing Italian connections?

Bhardwaj's action to help Quattrocchi could affect Sonia Gandhi's personal reputation -- more than her party's anti-democratic act in Bihar or Goa.

Rajiv didn't take money: V P Singh

The impact of Bihar on her reputation was political, not personal. For decades now, we Indians are used to such brazen Congress ways of functioning.

In the Quattrocchi money case, she will be deemed to be having a personal motive if Bhardwaj's decision is seen to be linked to her.

The matter is serious for her, more so because people who know the functioning of her durbar know that Suresh Pachauri, minister of personnel under whom the CBI falls, is part of her durbar.

Pachauri sanctioned Dutta's trip to London and didn't allow a CBI officer to travel along with Dutta on his now infamous trip.

A Congressman made unconvincing attempts to defend the party.

'I have checked up the facts with the additional solicitor general and as far as the facts go, there is a query from the Crown Prosecution Service on the Bofors case. The records and the material has been shown to them and records show no proof against Quattrocchi,' he said.

This is just not true because even an elementary class student of law knows that prime accused Quattrocchi has not been tried in a court of law. Legally speaking, no one can say there is no proof against Quattrocchi.

On India's request three years ago, the British government had frozen Quattrocchi's bank accounts in the United Kingdom and offshore islands.

'Rajiv Gandhi lost his life because of Bofors' 

Congressmen are saying even the BJP didn't do enough to expedite Bofors case. Opinion is divided on it.

Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is an old friend of the Hindujas, but it is a fact that during his regime, many actions were taken to speed up the case.

The responsibility for making Bofors a fiasco lies more with the CBI, which plays games as its political masters want it to. Slow investigations are a time-tested tactic to leave room for political manipulation by whichever party is in power.

In June 2005, the high court's acquittal of the Hindujas could not be challenged by the CBI because Bhardwaj forcibly restrained them.

Now, the government is facing two Public Interest Litigations in the Supreme Court against the acquittal.

The United Progressive Alliance government's decision to allow Quattrocchi to have his money before clearing his name in an Indian court is also now challenged.

Three Public Interest Litigations in the Supreme Court will certainly resurrect the Bofors ghost. The latest Supreme Court directive is only one of them.

But that, again, is not the issue.

The difficult question to answer is: Why is Sonia Gandhi risking so much for a forgotten, controversial wheeler-dealer like Quattrocchi?

Is it her newfound confidence that the people of India will not doubt her credentials anymore that led her sycophant Bhardwaj to act in such a brazen manner?

Some Congressmen say before she or Rahul Gandhi takes up running the government, she would like to see the burial of the Bofors case legally and politically once and for all.

If that is true, Bhardwaj has achieved exactly the opposite.

He will be made a fall guy, thinks BJP leader Arun Jaitley, a legal authority on the Bofors case.

But even that is not true.

Quattrocchi let off doesn't surprise investigators

It is all the more possible that in this dramatic episode to 'defreeze' Quattrocchi's money, Bhardwaj might be calculating his actual and hidden gain out of his imminent fall.

Obviously, a wily lawyer can't have acted without thinking of the endgame.

If that were not the case, why would he help someone hiding peacefully in an obscure Milan street?

Let us return to a fundamental question: Granted, Bhardwaj did not keep Prime Minister Singh and Sonia Gandhi informed before taking his decision.

But what prevented both leaders from correcting his action by telling the British authorities that Quattrocchi's accounts should remain frozen till the cases against him in India are disposed of?

Precisely this has given rise to suspicion that a drama is being played out by everyone concerned to hoodwink a Bofors-fatigued public.

It seems the Congress wants a legal burial of Bofors so that the political battle becomes easier to fight.

Those who hold this view refuse to believe that Bhardwaj could have acted the way he did without a nod from the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi.

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Sheela Bhatt