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Whichever way you roll the dice, you’ll land on this question—why did Bofors pay Quattrocchi? We knew that in 1989. No Raksha Mantri to date has given the country a reply to that question. But more of that in some time.
One thing is certain. We never lose an opportunity to let ourselves down. The other, even more certain thing is that it is never our fault. The evil world conspires against us innocents to ensure that we remain corrupt, malnourished and hungry. In the BC days—before computers—we were able to keep a lid on our laundry. Today, it all hangs out in pubic, while we still blame the foreign hand. In times of yore, it was the CIA or the KGB. Now we just say foreign hand.
As a reporter for The Indian Express and other publications abroad, I covered the GATT-WTO talks from Punta del Este in Uruguay to Marrakesh in Morocco where the WTO was officially born, wrote widely on human rights (we made fools of ourselves at the UNHRC vote on Sri Lanka) and disarmament, and covered Davos when it was still the European and not the World Economic Forum (WEF). Nothing is more embarrassing than being told by foreigners that my country has struck deals behind closed doors that do not represent our interests.
In my limited view, the only time we stood up as a nation was when our former ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Arundhati Ghose, told the world to take a walk on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)—a discriminatory treaty that would have tied us up in knots. That was almost 15 years ago, but I remember it like yesterday. India was being targeted for being a treaty-breaker and the world media reported that we were going to walk out any minute. There was tremendous pressure on Ghose. Once, when the then British ambassador said India was wriggling on a hook, she retorted that only worms wriggle on hooks. “Are you calling India a worm?” she asked him in front of the whole world.
The CTBT negotiations often went well into midnight. Once, when Ghose emerged to answer nature’s call, the world media ran after her, asking if India was walking out. “India is going to the loo,” she said as she puffed on her cigarette. At the final press conference, packed with many journalists and experts, the tall and muscular US ambassador said, “The people of the world want the CTBT—India is blocking it.”
Wait a minute, said the small-statured Ghose. “I represent over a billion people—we are part of the world and we don’t want this treaty that discriminates against us.” The room, full of her “enemies”, broke into thunderous applause.
What, you must wonder, is the link between Ghose and the recent revelations by Sten Lindstrom, the retired Swedish police chief. Plenty, I would say. The same qualities of courage, fortitude, a sense of justice, an ability to withstand immense pressure and stand by what one believes is right.
The world is full of honest officers doing their job. Lindstrom did not wake up one morning and decide that he was going to topple a government, much less make history. Twenty-five years ago, working as a part-time reporter for The Hindu, I covered l’affaire Bofors from the day the Swedish State Radio broke the story (April 16, 1987) and remained with it for ten years till the end of 1996. I was invited by the Swiss, not Indian, authorities to the quiet ceremony when the Swiss government officially handed over several boxes of secret bank documents to the Indian ambassador in Bern. Thereafter, a personal tragedy sent me underground. I resurfaced as a senior diplomat in the United Nations.
We’ve learnt nothing from Lindstrom’s revelations. Everyone is trying to see their angle, their comfort zone, their quid pro quo.
I don’t know what happened to those boxes, but that is a detail. What I do know is that years before, reporting first for The Hindu and then The Indian Express and The Statesman, my Swedish source—“Sting”—now identified as Sten Lindstrom, chief of Swedish police who led the investigations into the India deal, gave me documents and information that nailed the lies put out by Indian authorities. I want to make a point here. The Swedish government assisted India in the cover-up. But that is not my problem—it is for the Swedes to deal with that. Twenty-five years later, whichever way you roll the dice, the same question pops up: what services did Quattrocchi, as part of AE Services, render so as to be paid $7.5 million in a Swiss bank in 1986? The AE Services contract has no terms of reference and performance status.
Going by the reactions to Lindstrom’s latest revelations, we have learnt nothing. Everyone is trying to see their angle, be in their comfort zone, their little quid pro quo with disregard and disrespect for us as a nation. The media is part of this shoot-and-scoot journalism (one of the howitzers’ major assets was its ‘shoot and scoot capacity’, so that the enemy could not target it by locking in the trajectory). Whenever a major story breaks, we ask two questions—why now, and what’s the motive. In Bofors, there’s a third—what is Rs 64 crore compared to the many thousand crores paid as bribes today in any bank in any currency. It’s a running race—my crores are greater than yours.
The Bofors story is a simple one. India bought field howitzers from Sweden in 1986 for a sum of $1.2 billion. A supply contract worth almost twice that amount was also negotiated for transfer of technology, supply of documents and knowhow, etc, so that we could become self-sufficient. The guns were excellent; the price was competitive.
The problem was the bribes, especially the ones made secretly, were unknown even to the marketing director of Bofors. These were paid to a company called AE Services, which was the front office for Quattrocchi. Lindstrom has called this the political payment. Such payments are made when all the numbers are on the table. In the case of AE Services, they came into the contract at the last minute, cut into the commissions of other agents and assured Bofors that they need not be paid if they did not ink the contract within a prescribed time-limit. No middleman has this kind of power. The modus operandi was such that barring a few people, nobody knew what the other person knew. Where have you heard that before?
An election was lost on the inability of one of our most respected and admired prime ministers to tell us why Quattrocchi was paid. The proverb ‘the way to hell is paved with good intentions’ partly describes what the V.P. Singh government did to the Bofors investigations. First he announced he would “catch the thieves” in 14 days, while all of us in Switzerland and Sweden wondered if he had some clinching evidence. Mani Shankar Aiyar’s latest assault on the Indian investigating team is not entirely incorrect, whatever his political compulsions are. I know he did good work in Mayiladuthurai and then lost the election.
The first Letter Rogatory (LR)—a legal document countries exchange before the start of international assistance in criminal matters—was a museum piece. I had assisted the Indian government in securing the services of Marc Bonnant, one of the world’s best brains in matters of international criminal assistance. He was embarrassed to tell me that the LR filed by us would be thrown out not because of substance, but because there were rubber stamps all over the evidence, with numerous signatures making every page illegible, therefore not acceptable in a court of law. Some pages were stapled all around, as if we were hiding something, and everything was bound together in a fat file with unbreakable thread. Snowman, my Swiss source, asked if cutting the unbreakable thread had any legal consequences.
That LR was thrown out, the guilty claimed victory and in the following months the government fell, but not before they had planted stories in New Delhi—the city of gossip—Switzerland and Sweden. When you treat cancer, the first diagnosis has to be accurate. If your doctor gets that wrong, you are in serious trouble. Many Indian politicians carelessly compare cancer to our political system without realising they are part of it.
So, to get back to the basic question—why did Bofors pay Q? What did successive governments in India not know, and when did they know that they didn’t know? A committee is not an answer. India is the world’s largest free market economy. If we have the will, we should be able to slap information out of governments.
(Former journalist Chitra Subramaniam Duella is co-founder, CSDconsulting, Switzerland.)