Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public comments involving Rajiv Gandhi – that he “died Bhrashtachari No. 1” – were no doubt in bad taste.
This is not to say, by any stretch of the imagination, that Bofors was a clean deal. Although the 155 mm Howitzers from the Swedish manufacturer was indeed a fine gun, as revealed in the Kargil war, the fact is that there were middlemen who received payments from the company despite the contract having barred their engagement.
It is also a fact that the money trail led to coded accounts in Swiss banks and established that they belonged to Ottavio Quattrocchi among others. The point, however, is that the Quattrocchi link with the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was more by way of perception – that he too hailed from Italy, like Sonia Gandhi, and was a visitor at their residence. The campaign, then, based on perception in the political realm, was indeed very strong.
There was nothing then, and nothing today, to establish with legally sustainable evidence the presence of a nexus involving Rajiv.
None other than Arun Jaitley, now a minister in the Union cabinet, can vouch for this. After Rajiv Gandhi was unseated – in the general elections in 1989 and V.P. Singh came to power – Jaitley was made the additional solicitor general and the Bofors investigation was left under his charge.
He supervised the letters rogatory to the various governments, scanned the documents available and was in charge of prosecution of the case.
What Jaitley helped to find
While Jaitley did well to establish the money trail leading to Quattrocchi and two others, the work he initiated helped India obtain the details of whom the coded accounts belonged to: it was revealed through documents the government received later, in response to the letters rogatory, that the coded accounts Lotus, Tulip and Mont Blanc belonging to the Hindujas, Pitco and Svenska to Win Chadha, and AE Services to Colbar Investments, a shell company operated by AE Services (run by Quattrocchi and his wife). This information became available to the Indian government in July 1993.
Later, the case and its prosecution went on while the BJP-led NDA headed the government in New Delhi. This fact assumes significance because it must be agreed upon that an investigation into the Bofors deal and its payoffs could not be trusted to be carried out impartially with the Congress party or its allies in power.
The investigation and more importantly the prosecution of the case took shape and was taken forward between 1998 and 2004; this was when the BJP-led NDA ruled India and hence was responsible in unravelling the nexus, if any, between Rajiv Gandhi and the Bofors payoff, strictly in the legal sense.
The chargesheet and the end of the case – when the Delhi high court absolved Rajiv Gandhi of the charges in February 2004 – could have been re-visited by the Narendra Modi government, with Arun Jaitley holding a substantially important position in it, after May 2014.
This was not done. And no one asked anyone why nothing was being done about the Bofors investigation. An appeal could have been filed against the Delhi high court’s decision of February 2004. Having pushed the files deep into the shelves, it was improper on the part of Narendra Modi to have said what he did.
The perception that Rajiv Gandhi had profited from the Bofors deal gathered mass in the late 1980s and people did take this into consideration while voting in the October-November 1989 general elections.
Of course, several other factors bolstered anti-Congress sentiment and helped a non-Congress government come to power at the Centre.
The Modi government dropped the Bofors ball
Let me reiterate, at the cost of repetition, that the Swedish gun manufacturer was caught paying middlemen against the terms of the contract by the Swedish National Audit Bureau (SNAB). It was also established that the total amount paid thus added up to 3% of the deal, which is normally the payoff to middlemen in defence deals.
The SNAB found fault because the contract with the Government of India specifically contained a clause that there would be no middlemen. But despite the efforts of successive non-Congress governments in India, no link to Rajiv Gandhi could ever be established.
It is true that Rajiv Gandhi could not have been sent up to trial and hence could not have been punished even if found guilty in that case – he was killed on May 21, 1991. The legal maxim “De mortuis nil nisi bonum” (Speak no ill of the dead) would certainly apply insofar as the courts are concerned.
When Modi called Rajiv Gandhi ‘bhrastachari no. 1’ on account of Bofors, his audience would have assumed he had some evidence to prove the former PM had been given some kind of access to the money that went to the coded accounts. But Modi had no such evidence, and thus, his remarks make no sense.
V. Krishna Ananth is a professor of history at Sikkim University and the author of India Since Independence: Making Sense of Indian Politics.