The invitation to write this piece is an indirect one and it comes from the Office of Rahul Gandhi. In a tweet addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he said, “Dear PM, Welcome to Switzerland! Please tell Davos why 1% of India’s population gets 73% of its wealth. I’m attaching a report for your ready reference.” The report was from Oxfam, carried by website The Wire.
I tweeted that it might be useful to ask why India’s income gap is so vast and the role of the Congress Party therein and forgot all about it till much later when I saw a tweet by journalist and columnist Kanchan Gupta who tweeted the following. “2018, Jan 23: PM Modi is in Davos to present the India story. 1992 Feb 1: EAM Madhavsinh Solanki was in Davos to present an “unsigned memorandum” to the Swiss Foreign Minister, seeking a halt to probe into Bofors bribe money in Switzerland. Welcome to Switzerland, @OfficeofRG.”
February, 1992. Our daughter was just a few weeks old. Four years of Bofors had taken a toll on our family life. Our son was born in 1987 just as the story had broken and bore the brunt of a mother running between finding sources, collecting documents and managing feeding schedules.
I was not in Davos that year for obvious reasons, but Davos came home. First, in the form of a phone call followed by a fax. I remember it like yesterday. My husband had just returned from office, our son was helping me attend to his little sister and the phone rang. It’s Snowman, said the au pair. That was the code name for one of the Swiss sources. My heart sank. Why on earth was Snowman calling now?
“I have news for you,” said the voice on the other side. “We have an unsigned note from your Minister of External Affairs and we don’t know what to do with it,” he said. "Which department should it go to?"
“What do you mean, how do I know, what does it say,” I asked.
“Well, the note wants us to stop the Bofors investigations in Switzerland, but it does not say for what reason and neither does it say who wants it to be stopped and what is this unsigned nonsense?” Snowman went on to explain that the unsigned note had been handed over to the Swiss Foreign Minister by his Indian counterpart Madhavsinh Solanki during an unscheduled meeting at Davos. Literally in a "pssst, pssst" mode. The Swiss were foxed - had they done something wrong, followed a wrong procedure? I tried to imagine Solanki's plight, trying to find a private moment in crowded Davos to do such an underhand thing. Did he think Switzerland works like India does for the Gandhi family i.e. nothing is said or stated and certainly not written but simply understood? Had he forgotten that he held a key portfolio in the Indian government and was insulting his office?
“How is this possible,” I asked. There was a formal process of mutual assistance in criminal matters underway, heavy duty stuff was being exchanged between New Delhi and Bern, so what was this unsigned memo doing. Snowman had been a source of strength in Switzerland when the investigations shifted to this country. When I faced legal action for breaching the Official Secrets Act by Bern, Snowman and a few friends in the media had seen me through. Throughout Bofors, I learnt that whistle-blowers I was working with, in Sweden and Switzerland, cared more about the system than they did about individuals. This is not the case in India where the system comes together to hang whistle-blowers out to dry. That's how far our democracy has travelled from what our founding parents had wished for us.
Go to your fax machine, said Snowman.
Within minutes, the unsigned memo was rolling on the machine. We finished dinner calmly after which I told my husband there’s a big Bofors story breaking. He shrugged his shoulders and continued to read the newspaper. Once the children were in bed and the au pair had gone out for the evening, I started making my calls and followed them up the next morning. I called the Swiss Department of Justice and Police, the lead Swiss arm in the Indo-Swiss investigation, the Swiss Foreign Office as well as the Indian Embassy in Bern. Obviously, there was no confirmation of anything, but I had the note.
All of that was followed up with one last and long conversation with Snowman. I think my story took the Congress Party as well as other parties by surprise. There were the usual noises in the media and grandstanding by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its coalition partners from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Solanki lost his job and refused to tell India who asked him to deliver the ridiculous note and why was he doing it when an official process was on. It is not difficult to answer those questions but I was appalled to see the various tricks the Congress Party was willing to use and the ignominy it was willing to hurl on its own people to save the Gandhi family. And why were people, publicly made to bite the dust, willing to do so? At that point, the most important thing for me was to ensure that the secret Swiss documents, which told the sordid money trail, reach Indian authorities. That happened in 1997, almost 21 years ago.
The boxes sent to India from Switzerland remain unopened. The joke always seems to be on the Indian tax-payer, whichever party is at the helm. I believe information contained in those boxes will unfurl itself on our politicians irrespective of their leanings. One day, sooner rather than later, the Bofors -India story will be told by someone in one medium or another. The story does not belong to any political party - it belongs to us, Indians. The time to tell the next generation of Indians what really happened is coming.
Happy Republic Day to all from a snowed in Switzerland.
(Views expressed by the author are personal.)