Italy ke damaad, tere bas ka Hindustan nahi
This slogan was coined in the general elections of 1989 when Vishwanath Pratap Singh and Rajiv Gandhi were no more on the same side. A defeat of Congress in these elections made clear that there was definitely a black spot in the image of Rajiv Gandhi. If Pondicherry License Scandal case was the beginning of Indira Gandhi’s decline, leading to her fall from power in 1977 elections held after emergency, Bofors proved Rajiv Gandhi’s undoing. In just about a year’s time, Rajiv’s ‘Mr Clean’ image was shattered and he lost all credibility in the public eye.
Although Rajiv Gandhi was punished politically by the public in 1989 elections, the law courts are yet to deliver judgements on allegations of payment of bribes by A.B. Bofors to public servants, including politicians, to induce them to purchase the 155mm howitzer in 1986. It is yet another case that has exposed our criminal justice system of its failure to deal effectively with individuals having powerful political connections or occupying powerful positions.
Even though the allegations of payment of bribes in the Bofors case came to the force on 16April 1987, a criminal case for investigation was not registered by the CBI as long as he remained the prime minister. The case also compromised on the national security, in as much as the guns were meant for use by our armed forces. On 16 April 1987, a Swedish radio broadcast claimed that A.B. Bofors had paid commissions to agents in violation of its undertaking to the government of India in order to win a multi-million dollar contract for the supply of howitzer guns to India. There was an allegation on Rajiv Gandhi and others regarding the purchase of 415 guns from Bofors where approximately an amount of Rs 64 crore was taken as commission.
The big question that got raised was more about Rajiv Gandhi’s involvement rather than the amount.
Bofors was brought into limelight by V.P. Singh. Because of the growing differences among Rajiv Gandhi and V.P. Singh, Bofors was quite useful in the 1989 general elections. Vishwanath Pratap Singh was initially the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and Sanjay Gandhi was the key person behind his promotion. Even prior to the ‘Bofors’ bombshell on 16 April 1987, the resignation of V.P. Singh from the cabinet only four days prior to that had politically shaken Rajiv Gandhi and his government. The inquiries initiated by V.P Singh as finance minister against some economic offenders and business houses, caused a flutter in Rajiv’s mind. A story was spread that the real target was Amitabh Bacchan, a film star and close friend of Rajiv Gandhi. Vir Sanghavi in an interview said, “There was a big corporate war that started between them. It was thought as if V.P. Singh’s intrusion was to reveal Rajiv Gandhi.” When the news of the engagement of an American detective agency, Fairfax, by the Finance Ministry to assist in some inquiries came ahead, there was an attack against V.P. Singh. He was thus shifted from finance to defence. Ajay Singh, son of V.P.Singh, said in an interview, “The effect of corporate lobbying was the force behind Rajiv Gandhi’s changing his position”. Having received information that an agent had received a commission of Rs 30 crores in the HWD submarine deal worth Rs 340 crore with West Germany, V.P Singh constituted an inquiry into it which the P.M. did not like and hence Singh eventually tendered his resignation from the cabinet.
Thus there came a tiff between Rajiv Gandhi and V.P. Singh which shaped the Indian politics.
In the gripping account given by B.M.Oza , an Indian ambassador in Stockholm during the crucial years between 1984-88, in his book, ‘Bofors’, he writes that following the Bofors scandal, relations between India and Sweden became quite frigid. Only after V.P. Singh came to power that a first information report was drawn and a regular case was registered by the CBI on 22 January 1990. Since Swiss banks do not reveal their secret accounts to any investigating agency until a criminal case for investigation into offences of double criminality is registered by the country making the request. There were several requests made but CBI was totally unmoved and criminal case was registered as long as Rajiv Gandhi remained in power. The issue was however being covered widely by newspapers in India and Abroad. The initial reaction of the PM was that of panic. Tavleen Singh out rightly said, “Rajiv said that no money was taken by him or his family. He shouldn’t have said this as he was not being accused. However after this, he was thought to be involved”. Instead of external ministry or ministry of defence dealing with the matter, the PMO decided to deal with the issue itself. B.M. Oza in his book has mentioned that he was instructed to approach the Swedish government and ask them to issue a firm denial of the Swedish radio report.
The PMO or the head of the government should have been anxious to ascertain the facts rather than to persuade the Swedish government to deny the radio report. Oza was told that it would not be appropriate for the Swedish government to issue a denial regarding an allegation against a private company. Oza submitted an assessment saying that he did not believe that the report gave a factual position. He was horrified to see a news item in the Swedish media quoting a Swedish official spokesperson that in view of the fact that Bofors had submitted a report to the Indian ambassador explaining its position regarding alleged payment of commission, there was going to be no further official investigation by the Swedish government. He got to know that the Prime Minister had personally called up Swedish Prime Minister, Ingvar Carlsson, and told him that investigation was no longer necessary.
But this was not followed by the Swedish government. A Swedish National Audit Board was set up to conduct an official investigation and submit its report within a month. This report confirmed that commissions had been paid and received by the Indian officials however the names weren’t revealed. The Swedish government explained that Bofors had invoked the principle of commercial confidentiality and had asked the Swedish authorities not to make this information public. It was further proposed that the Indian government should ask Bofors to suspend further delivery of guns. Bofors had supplied only 60 out of the total 415 howtizer guns ordered. As soon as this proposition was made, the prime minister showed his reluctance towards it. “As prime minister, I cannot compromise the nation’s security to clear my personal image’’, said Rajiv Gandhi in an interview to Blitz in June, 1987. General Sundarji, however clarified in an interview given to India Today that when he was asked by the Ministry of Defence in June 1987 about the security implications of cancelling the contract, he had said that it was ‘an acceptable risk’. This statement of his was an indication of the fact that the prime minister had some hidden interests.
Arun Singh also resigned after some time. India Tody wrote that the prime minister was at that time a beleaguered man. V.P. Singh after quitting as defence minister had been expelled from the party. Over a hundred MPs led by V.P. Singh including Arun Nehru, V.C. Shukla , Arif Mohammad Khan as well as Laxman Rao sent a telegram to the chief public prosecutor of Sweden requesting him to ‘initiate pretrial investigation in Bofors’. This marked the dividing line between many congress MPs and Rajiv Gandhi. V.P. Singh at that time was able to capture the attention of the general public.
Oza in his book mentions that when he asked the foreign secretary, K.P.S. Menon, as to why the Ministry of External Affairs had not dealt with the matter and had allowed to be handled by the PMO, his response was short and crisp : “Because the PMO wanted to handle it”. He added, “Maybe Rajiv Gandhi was personally involved in it. Therefore, perhaps, it belonged to the PMO”. Thus no matter how much one declines it but the ‘Mr Clean’ image of Rajiv Gandhi had started to wash away and thus was making its way to the era of V.P. Singh.
On 25 November, 1988, The Hindu published ex Bofors chief, Martin Ardbo’s diary showing light on the alleged payments of the order of Rs 65 crore made by Bofors and roles played by various politicians and bureaucrats. Later Frontline carried the text of a report filed by a Swedish investigative journalist Bo Anderson, which said that without the involvement of Quattrocchi’s A.E. Services, Bofors had no chance of getting the order. “The money for Gandhi went through A.E. Services.” Bob Wilson, their solicitor, signed an agreement which said that A.E. Services will not be paid commission if the government of India did not award the contract to Bofors by 24March 1986. It was also told to N.Ram that Win Chadha was the ‘formal agent’.
Also disclosed in August 1989 was the controller and auditor general (CAG) of India’s report on Bofors which further raised questions. In the very first objection, the CAG said that that the reasons for the government not asking for a full CAG of the books on bofors were not clear. Secondly it also raised a point that the army had indicated their preference for Sofma(French) guns between December 1985 and October 1985 but had changed their preference in January 1986. Lt. Gen. Mayadas, former director general of weapons and equipment, who had done technical evaluation of the four guns, in an exclusive interview to Indian Express said that a fortnight after assuming the position of chief of army staff, General Sundarji, wrote to the government recommending the Bofors gun. At this time the defence ministry was directly under the control of the prime minister. In a book named Unknown Facets of Rajiv Gandhi, Jyoti Basu and Indrajit Gupta, a former CBI director, Dr A.P. Mukherjee wrote that Rajiv Gandhi wanted to use the commission money from Bofors exclusively to run the congress party.
All these issues were enough to sow the seeds of mistrust in the minds of people regarding their prime minister. The critical aspect of Bofors is that the only person who benefitted the most out of Bofors was V.P. Singh. He was able to drive the anti-corruption wave right after this scam. V P Singh started a new political outfit known as ‘Jan Morcha’ in 1987 to fight against corruption. He became popular throughout the country as a crusader against corruption.
There exists a strong relationship between politics and money. Here, a bribe of Rs 64 crore proved to be beneficial for V.P. Singh. V P Singh formed ‘Janata Dal’ On 11th October 1988 merging Jan Morcha, a faction of Janata Party led by Chandra Shekar, Lok Dal and Congress. The newly formed Janata Dal became popular throughout India, as a party to fight corruption.
V P Singh also formed a coalition called ‘National Front’ with parties like DMK (Tamil Nadu), Telugu Desam Party (Andhra Pradesh), and Assam Gana Parishad (Assam). N T Rama Rao (TDP) was the Chairman of National Front and V P Singh was the Convenor to face the Elections of 1989. The newly formed Janata Party fought elections with a new symbol of ‘chakra’. ‘Corruption’ and ‘Bofors scandal’ was the main agenda of the elections.
Congress led by Rajiv Gandhi had secured 197 seats (vote share of 39.5%) and emerged as the single largest party. In the 8th Lok Sabha, Congress had secured 404 seats with vote share of 49.01%) and their strength was reduced to less than half during the 9th Lok Sabha. It was because of the corruption charges levelled against Rajiv Gandhi and also the electoral alliance of all the opposition parties with the sole objective of ‘anti congressism’. The Janata Dal led by V P Singh secured 143 seats (vote share 40.7%) and became the second largest party.
Thus Bofors marked the drowning of Rajiv Gandhi. It wiped off his clean image and V.P. Singh attracted all the attention. On 22 October 1999 a charge sheet was filed against Win Chaddha, Ottavio Quattrocchi , S.K. Bhatnagar and Bofor’s chief Martin Obdogi was filed. Rajiv Gandhi was also accused but there was no trial against him since he had died. In 2002, Win Chadha and S.K. Bhatnagar also passed away. Quattrocchi also died in 2013.