There are two clear sides to the Bofors-India case. One is the evidence of bribes and the other is the political side that is the elaborate three-country effort to cover up of the trail of bribes, loot and lies.
The Bofors India case changed jurisprudence in Switzerland in matters of international assistance in penal matters – a first in a country that had some of the world’s toughest courts and lawyers protecting illegal monies and assets. The case of bribes contributed to the downfall of the Rajiv Gandhi government in India. It showed up the Swedish government as an accomplice to an international crime that included defending a Swedish company Bofors involved in smuggling arms and ammunition across the world. Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme looked away as winning the Indian contract by hook or by crook was critical for jobs in Sweden. Here were two Prime Ministers of democracies using their bureaucrats to lie to their people in a manner unknown till then.
Something significant happened to the case in India recently. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in India asked the Supreme Court of India to reopen the case that was artificially closed in 2011. Before that gross misuse of the judiciary occurred, Ottavio Quattrocchi a close friend of former Congress President Sonia Gandhi and a direct recipient of the Bofors bribes, was allowed to clean out his account in London where some monies were parked. Why didn’t the CBI act earlier? Representing the CBI in the SC, Additional Solicitor General Maninder Singh stated that the country’s top investigating agency had been denied permission at that time to probe the case further. He did not mention who denied the permission. In 2005 the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was in power.
More importantly, the CBI has also moved the trial court which shorn of legalese could mean that the investigations in India which were always lukewarm and marred with political interference go back to basics. If the government is serious about bringing closure to the issue, it must do four things.
- Open the boxes sent to it from Switzerland in 1997 and make it part of the evidence. These could contain incriminating evidence beyond what is publicly known and establish money trails that the recipients of bribes want to bury.
- Set up a CBI-monitored court that hears the matter daily so the process can be completed within a year. This is possible. It needs political will.
- Keep politicians, bureaucrats and busybodies, who have used l’affaire Bofors for personal advancement, away so the courts conduct their business without fear or favour.
- Establish a procedure for media to cover the proceedings as it is because of the media in India and Sweden that the story has seen the light of day.
In the SLP, the CBI has sought the quashing of the 2005 order that set free the Hinduja brothers and quashed the trial court order framing charges against Bofors. In seeking to reopen the case, the CBI has referred to an interview by Prema Sridevi Investigations, Editor of Republic TV of the celebrated private detective Michael Hershman who told the journalist he is in possession of material to show payment of bribes in the Bofors deal. He also said he had received threats to his life. Calling this the “most significant development” the CBI said his statements “go to the very root of the matter.” In the same interview, Hershman mentions a Swiss account named Mont-Blanc that, an account linked to the Hindujas. In addition, some stellar court reporting from Rhythm Anand Bharadwaj, Legal Editor, Republic has resulted in securing the parameters within which the case can be opened.
As part of the new evidence is also an interview with Lindström where made he made what can only be called a bombshell revelation. He referred to a private conversation between Gandhi and Palme where the former suggested to the latter to route some of the bribe-money back to Sweden. The exact words used by Lindström were “some kind of insurance.” An insurance to remain silent about anything he may eventually find out about the bribes in India. Pressed, he told me it was a “quid pro quo.” In other words, Gandhi was seeking to cover his tracks – the same Gandhi who told Parliament that neither he nor his family were involved in any wrongdoing in the Bofors case when the story hit international headlines in April 1986. Following the sensational Lindström interview, the Swedish government had said if requested they would help India.
It is not for lack of evidence that the Bofors case has not succeeded in punishing the guilty. The absence of political will obviously on the part of the UPA government and lethargy – to be kind – on the part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have resulted in the truth being hidden from Indians. The over 300 documents leaked to me by Lindström had established massive fraud. Among them were bank documents, credit slips, payment instructions from Bofors to the banks in Sweden and Switzerland, contracts between Svenska Incorporated and A.E Services (the company which got the bribes for Quattrocchi) and Bofors as well as certain instructions concerning the third set of payoffs to the entities behind Pitco-Moresco-Moineau and the accounts code-named Mont Blanc, Tulip and Lotus. Lindström had also managed to get hold of the complete version of the Swedish National Audit Bureau (SNAB) report that detailed the illegal payments. In addition, he gave me the diaries and notes of chief Bofors negotiator Martin Ardbo – documents that provided valuable clues and links to the Gandhi family. I do not believe the bribes were a paltry Rs. 64 crores because contractually Bofors was bound to pay much more. Evidence of this is most likely to be in the boxes that the Swiss transferred to India in 1997.
“If there is new evidence, the Swiss government will certainly look into the possibility of assisting India,” Folco Galli, Chief Spokesperson for the Department for the Department of Justice and Police (DFJP) told The News Minute. He referred to how the Bofors case had brought about “spectacular” change in Swiss laws in matters of international assistance on penal matters. Thanks to Bofors, such cases are placed on a fast track and procedures are shielded from meaningless appeals once the assistance has been granted by the Federal Swiss Authorities.
So why is Bofors important? The traced Rs. 64 crores in bribes is paltry compared to sums that change hands today.
Bofors is important because for the first time in independent India, the illegal monies pointed directly to friends and family of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. An entire generation of Indians has grown up with the name of Bofors in their language and I get regular mails from people asking me to tell the whole story. Sooner rather than later someone in some medium will. The purpose of this piece is to focus on the recent dramatic developments in India which show that at least on paper, the Narendra Modi government is keen to get to the bottom of the sordid sage of loot and deception, lies and secret deals with a Swedish arms manufacturer that was involved in international smuggling of arms and ammunition. It is the story of how two Prime Ministers connived to help greed flourish at the cost of the taxpayer. It is the story of how Rajiv Gandhi, who had a mandate to change India, short-changed it.
Fighting corruption was one of the planks on which the Narendra Modi government came to power. The Prime Minister has referred to the arms scandal on several occasions, most recently in parliament when he compared his visit to Davos to that of the Congress government’s External Affairs Minister Madhavsinh Solanki who tried to stop the investigations in Switzerland.
Sweden and Switzerland have both expressed goodwill and assistance to help India get to the bottom of the case. The ball is in the Indian government’s court.
Views expressed are the author's own.