By: B.G. Verghese
The country faces troubled times. To gether with signs of economic downturn, the ghost of Bofors is back to haunt us. Chitra Subramaniam’s interview with Sten Lindstrom, chief of Swedish Police who investigated the Bofors gun deal, contains noting new except for the revelation that Lindstrom was her “Deep Throat” and obviously a highly credible source. By his telling, while there was nothing to suggest any criminal involvement on the part of Rajiv Gandhi, there was conclusive evidence of Occtavio Quatrrochhi’s hand in the till. Yet the Indian Government undertook a sustained cover up operation, hampered and even discouraged investigations and indeed enabled Quatrrochhi to get away scot free, closing the case against him.
Quatrrochhi was an Italian businessman who represented the giant Italian chemical-cum-engineering multinational Snam Progetti in India for nearly 30 years from 1964. He had a close family friendship with Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi and thereby enjoyed a political access that enabled him to win an amazing succession of fertiliser and chemical contracts for his company, including the controversial Thal Vaishet project that rocked Parliament in Indira Gandhi’s time.
As Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi banned middlemen in defence deals. This unwise action merely drove them underground and made them brazen enough insidiously to enter privileged corridors of power as happened in Tehelka’s “Westend” sting operation and, more recently, when the Army Chief said he was offered a Rs 14 crore bribe in his office in the Defence Ministry in order to facilitate a truck deal. However, in the circumstances, Bofors severed relations with Win Chaddha and the Hindujas who were paid “winding up” charges for services rendered. But it was advised to seek a suitable substitute and, having surveyed the scene, finally picked on Quattrochhi whose competence was not in the arms market but possessed political influence.
Martin Ardbo, Bofors’ managing director, who visited India, was later to write in his diary that he was not so worried about the money trail leading to “N” as to “Q” and “R”. Quatrrochhi was allowed and assisted to get away and “N”, an influential figure for a while in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet, was not investigated. Chitra Subramaniam’s latest story reminds the country that the Bofors matter needs to be probed.
In January 1987, a few months before the Bofors bubble burst, the German government formally informed the Indian Embassy in Bonn that an Indian agent had been paid a seven per cent commission for facilitating an HDW submarine contract. The Indian Ambassador communicated this back to Delhi and his telegram landed on the desk of the new Defence Minister V.P. Singh who had just relieved Rajiv Gandhi of this portfolio on being transferred out of the Finance Ministry. V.P Singh mentioned the cable to the PM and went on to order a departmental inquiry. There was a ruckus in Parliament following which Rajiv queried VP who, feeling he was being put in the dock, resigned. That matter too remains unresolved.
The Tehelka scam was even more brazen. The BJP President, Bangaru Laxam, was caught on camera stuffing bundles of currency notes totalling Rs 1akh into his drawer in the Party office. He was frank enough to say that parties had to collect money. But he was disowned by his party, resigned and has now been sentenced to four years’ imprisonment by a trial court in Delhi. Instead of inquiring into the entire Tehelka saga, the NDA government shot the messenger. It destroyed Tehelka which, however, has risen again like an avenging angel.
The Tehelka and Bofors matters cannot be allowed to rest. Instead of being swept under the carpet, both need to be independently probed by an empowered committee which could report within three or four months. Simultaneously, a decision should be taken to license and register middlemen and subject them to close scrutiny instead of allowing unregistered agents a free run to corrupt the system.
In the midst of this all, President Pratibha Patil, soon to relinquish office, properly decided to return the Defence land she had selected in Pune on which to build her retirement home. She will surely be made comfortable elsewhere, as befits a former President. But she was ill-advised to grant a newspaper interview in which she stated that the on-going civil-military stand-off “should not have happened” and could have been handled “in a disciplined manner”. This is wise counsel but could have been offered privately to the actors concerned in view of the delicacy of the issues involved. As Supreme Commander, the President could have summoned both the Army Chief and Defence Minister and advised them to resolve the issue appropriately. Instead, there has been a raucous public wrangle, sides have been taken, conspiracies alleged and a communal PIL filed against the in-coming Army Chief that was fortunately promptly dismissed by the Supreme Court. However, an unseemly court battle continues between the Army Chief and the former head of the Defence Intelligence Agency that shows none in a good light.
All this was avoidable. The Defence Minister and Army Chief have mishandled matters and the Government has been supine. The President has in her interview said that her successor must possess “mental poise and presence of mind” to confront the “trying circumstances” that lie ahead. Maybe, she could have used her powers under Article 86 to address both Houses of Parliament on her civil-military concerns or sent a message to the two Houses to consider such matters as specified by her. Such powers have not yet been employed but are there for just such contingencies.
Meanwhile, the process of searching for a suitable Presidential candidate has commenced. That person should have the attributes the Rashtrapati mentioned in addition to wisdom, wide experience, integrity and equanimity. There is no reason necessarily to look for somebody from this region or that community or for the candidate to be non-political. The Rashtrapati, once elected must be non-partisan, and represent the nation rather than any party or interest group. Wide consultation and a consensus would be best.
Broadly similar considerations should apply to nominations to the Rajya Sabha. Sachin Tendulkar is surely a great sporting icon deserving of the highest Arjuna Award. But should people be canvassing for a Bharat Ratna for him or else a seat in Parliament? If he has chosen not to retire, should he be plucked from the cricket field? Parliament might consider appointing “goodwill ambassadors” for India as UNESCO and other UN bodies do. But does the Indian Parliament need a brand ambassador ? Surely not. Parliament represents “We, the People”, not a soft drink. Some nominated members in the past have not spoken single word during their entire term. Why then nominate ornamental figures and defeat the purpose of nominating a class of MPs. Never choose between bread and a circus.