At a time when everyone in the country is talking about the VVIP choppers, does it make sense to remind ourselves of a paltry 64 Crore rupee scandal? One would call it a paltry sum, because the game of corruption has been taken to new heights in the last 5-10 years. The remuneration aside, the Bofors Scam should not be forgotten. It highlighted the unspoken, but evident, sleaze and lobbying prevalent in defense procurement. Its resemblance to the Agusta deal with regards to the systematic burying and obfuscation of evidence is uncanny. Bofors Scam can be understood when you understand the politics of that time.
Back in 1975, our army had made it known to the Govt of India, that they badly needed a medium artillery gun. There were 4 arms manufacturers in play and the army had initially favored the French Sofma since it was the only gun that met a critical aspect of the General Staff Qualitative Requirement (GSQR), of having a range of 29 KMs.
And then sometime during February 1986, the Swedish Bofors emerged as the top contender for the billion dollar contract. The French gun met 84% of the defense procurement parameters while Bofors met only about 64%.
Subsequently, the GSQR was changed to suit Bofors. We can attribute reasons for why the GSQR were changed in the gun deal, but in the words of Retired General Sundarji “The fact is that irrespective of which weapon is chosen, if the intention is to cream a certain amount off the top for party purposes or whatever, it could be creamed off whichever weapon is chosen”. Sundarji had taken over as Army chief just weeks before the tide had started favoring Bofors.
A contract was inked in haste (in the lounge of an airport, at that!), in March 1986, between India and Sweden for the supply of 400 Howitzers manufactured by Bofors. The then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi also held additional charge as the defense minister. He had taken over that portfolio from PV Narasimha Rao in September 1985, immediately after he returned from a state visit to Sweden to meet their Prime Minister Olof Palme, ostensibly to discuss about the Bofors contract. Olof had made it clear that they were desperate to land this deal. It was unfortunate that he was shot dead before the contract was inked, by an unidentified assailant. The case was never investigated properly and remained an unsolved crime.
Rajiv Gandhi, came on the plank of being an anti-corruption crusader besides riding the sympathy wave created by the assassination of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. He told the voters that there was rampant corruption at all levels in the country and he would deliver us from this evil. Quite a strange election strategy, as it implied that the congress party was the reason for the corruption, given they were in power continuously since 1947, barring 5 years in the late 1970’s. However, he managed to earn the sobriquet – Mr. Clean of Indian Politics.
An important announcement was made during 1984 by the Govt of India, which barred the participation of middlemen or agents in contracts with the GOI. This was a matter of policy and any supplier still dealing with middlemen had to declare the same in a pro forma. Bofors was asked if they continued to use the services of any agent (Win Chadha) and they replied in the negative. Interestingly Win Chadha and SK Bhatnagar, couple of the prime accused in the Bofors scandal, died of natural causes in the same year – 2001
Meanwhile, trouble was brewing in the finance ministry. VP Singh, who would later prove to be Rajiv’s arch nemesis, was trying to upset the applecart. He came down heavily on tax evaders and took a number of steps to prevent smuggling of Gold. So far, so good? And then, he supposedly crossed the line. He orchestrated raids on influential people like Dhirubai Ambani, Tatas, Birlas, Goenkas and virtually every big business house in the country. He is rumored to have hired the services of a private investigative agency, Fairfax, to track down money going out of India to Swiss bank accounts. Perhaps all other finance ministers in the history of our nation have collectively not ruffled as many feathers, as this man would in one afternoon at the north block! His ministry had charged hundreds of people with criminal offenses and pressurized many businesses to pay the tax notices sent to them. When they refused to play ball, he blacklisted them and stopped all government clearances to them until they cleared the dues, an unprecedented move.
The voices of dissent (among the business houses) reached a crescendo with the arrest of the Octogenarian Shantanurao Laxmanrao Kirloskar for tax evasion. Rajiv Gandhi, was forced to move him out of the finance ministry but Singh’s popularity was at such an upswing that he could not be suspended from the party. Indian express decided to announce his ouster from the finance portfolio with the following headline “The lobbyists win”. Fortune favors the brave, they say and so did it favor Singh. Rajiv Gandhi was not particularly known for his political acumen and wisdom, traits shared by his son, Rahul. He relinquished the defense portfolio and assigned it to Singh. This was the mother of all bad moves. A good move for the people of India, definitely.
His tenure at the defense ministry lasted a dozen odd weeks. India had signed another questionable defense contract with Germany’s HDW in December 1981. This was under the able guidance of Indira Gandhi, who held the defense portfolio along with being the prime minister of the country, a feat emulated by her son in the following term. The contract was for delivery of four submarines to the Indian Navy. The initial GSQR mandated a dive depth of 350 meters, which was later changed to 250 meters, to accommodate HDW. Sweden’s Kockums were the frontrunners for the first few years in this deal, when suddenly tables turned in favor of the German company. It is reasonable to assume that the Swedish people learnt a lesson in how to deal with Indian politicians and bureaucracy. Swedish Bofors immediately enlisted the services of middlemen, who would act as conduits, to channel kickbacks to government officials and bureaucrats.
By Feb 1987, two of the four subs were delivered and prorated payments made to the Germans. Defense Minister Singh made an attempt to renegotiate the pricing on the remaining two subs. This is when India’s ambassador to Germany met HDW and shot back a telegram that torpedoed into the congress party.The telegram quoted the HDW officials as saying that they cannot reduce the price since they are already paying a 7% commission on the deal! In a deal between two parties, it is normal business courtesy to inform the purchaser about any commissions paid to any agents. This way, the purchaser will know the conflict of interest such agents have in seeing this deal through. VP Singh chanced upon the telegram in April 1987. It was at that moment that the hull of Mr. Clean was well and truly breached.
VP Singh immediately ordered an enquiry without consulting the PMO. What followed was absurd to say the least. Singh wanted to respond in the parliament but his own party men, led by Buta Singh, asked the speaker if the defense minister had the right make a statement. All this, while the entire opposition was creating a ruckus, in favor of VP Singh! This was one of the rarest scenes witnessed in the Lok Sabha when the ruling party tried to muzzle its own minister! Couple of days later, Singh had his son to drive him to meet Rajiv, without any security entourage whatsoever and tendered his resignation. He knew he was going to be axed anyway. When speaking to someone off the record, Singh is supposed to have told “Wait till April 16”.
And magically, on April 16, 1987, Swedish radio broke the news that Bofors had paid bribes to Indian politicians in order to land the deal. Indian express and the Hindu ran the news the following day. The image of Rajiv suffered a massive blow and he was forced to order an inquiry. The mood of the public turned against him. The mask fell and how! A 10 year old girl telephoned the All India Radio station in Patna during a live program where kids could sing on air. When the anchor asked her to sing, she crooned “Gali Gali me shor hai, Rajiv Gandhi Chor hai!” This disgraceful slogan became popular with almost every Indian living across the breadth of the country.
India today ran the cover two months before the country went to polls (the picture of which is featured alongside this article) and showed us how morally corrupt the current government was. Predictably, Congress was decimated in the polls that followed. They had won 404 seats in 1984 in the Lok Sabha, the only time a single party crossed 400 seats! And in 1989, Rajiv’s fall from grace was evident from the fact that the congress could only garner 197 seats! VP Singh came to power in 1989. It was an electrifying election campaign, which saw VP Singh take out a small calculator from his pocket in rallies. He used to tell the audience that it was a device that could decode the Swiss bank account numbers of Rajiv Gandhi in which he had stashed his ill gotten money. And if the nation elected Singh to power, he promised he would hand this device to the court and get Rajiv arrested!
The investigation into the Bofors scandal suffered whenever the congress or its allies came to power. During Rajiv’s time, a lot of pressure was put on the Swedish government to bury the case. The Congress did everything to stonewall the investigative agencies and the public. At some point in the early 90s, the name of Quattrochi emerged as having a role in the scandal. He was a man of questionable character, who lived in India for about 3 decades, until he fled the country in 1993. He was a good ‘personal’ friend of Sonia and Rajiv. He had even travelled to meet Olof Palme along with Rajiv when the latter was on a state visit to the country! Quattrochi made crores of rupees from the Bofors deal, chump change, compared to what his political masters would have made. Congress has been so efficient in systematically watering down the scandal, that in 2010, they dropped all charges against him and officially withdrew the red corner notice and unfroze bank accounts which held the money made through the Bofors kickback!
All of this makes one wonder if we are actually an intolerant nation? No other nation in this world will tolerate such a corrupt party and keep bringing them back to power. Infact, we are not intolerant, just gullible and ignorant. The congress did a great job of keeping us this way, over the last 8 decades, right from their role in the partition of the nation to the ongoing Agusta Westland scandal. It is a well-known fact that history is controlled by those in power. This party is unmatched in its ability to control what the public thinks. It has successfully twisted history and fed it to us as children, through state controlled text books.
In the novel nineteen eighty four, the autocratic government of Oceania has a slogan– “who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past”. George Orwell might have prophesied about the Gandhi-Nehru family when he goes on to explain the mind control techniques used by fictional government. In the book, the people of Oceania are not allowed to have photographs or personal memorabilia, making them have very short term memories. They then believe everything the Govt says and have no free will, whatsoever. This article is written in the hopes that it stops our memory from failing us.