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A Tough Family To Crack

As the battle becomes a war, the Hindujas' moves will be watched with keen interest

A Tough Family To Crack
This is one battle no one anticipated. This is one battle that could well become a war. In the latest round of Bofors sparring - the filing of the first chargesheet - the bjp may have found it easy to demolish the protests of a feckless Congress. But the next logical step, the filing of the second chargesheet, involves taking on the Hindujas, arguably one of the most powerful and secretive families in the world. With financial sinews and political contacts that gird the globe, and a legendary staying power that has seen them weather controversies as so much water off a duck's back.

No wonder, then, that political and business circles are agog with speculation about the motives and implications of the impending stand-off. It's true that the bjp government seems resolved to get to the bottom of the 13-year-old case, an impression amplified by the statements of home minister L.K. Advani and information and broadcasting minister Arun Jaitley. But it is also true that the Hindujas have intimate access to the highest echelons of the bjp, and their vaunted clout extends to all key sectors of the government. The inevitable question then is: is this just the bjp's dance of thrust and parry, and display of steel gloves while the hands remain velvet? Or has prime minister Vajpayee's government decided to take on the might and bite of the Hindujas?

The Hindujas, whose empire stretches from Mumbai to Geneva, London to New York, don't know what's hit them but the bjp's proactive role still needs to be watched. Which begs the next question: how far will the cbi be allowed to go?

Pressure has already mounted on the nda government to now take the case to its logical conclusion. First, it was the Left parties and now the Congress, already caught on the backfoot, has joined the chorus. Their allegation is that the first chargesheet was filed before the last set of documents had arrived in order to shield the Hindujas.

However, the government intends to pursue the case, which seems to have entered a political rather than a legal phase. Many in the bjp have said the Hindujas are the only ones blocking its progress. But if there are no serious attempts to bring the papers back, it will only help them, as their detailed bank papers and business transactions are reportedly contained in the documents being processed in Berne.

Conscious of their media image, the Hindujas would rather be known for their philanthropy and promotion of Indian culture than be besmirched by a murky gun deal. The bad press the family has got in recent weeks in India has upset them no end. According to those close to the family, what has been the unkindest cut is that action against them has been promised by a government they have supported.

The Hindujas themselves have maintained that they have nothing to do with the case. "The Hinduja group having seen the media reports published in Indian newspapers objects and resents to be once again dragged into the political controversy and requests politicians not to drag their names into the Bofors issue again," read a communication to Outlook.

The first set of papers that arrived from Switzerland in January '97 have named the usual suspects - Ottavio Quattrocchi and Win Chadha and their families, Rajiv Gandhi and former Bofors chief Martin Ardbo. But the second set of papers, whose transfer is being opposed by the Hindujas, could prove to be tricky. Their appeal is currently being heard in Berne by Federal Home Councillor Ruth Metzler.

This is virtually the last stop for the Hindujas, who have till now successfully appealed against the transfer of Swedish bank documents to India. That, in a way, could just be what the Indian government now wants. Investigators say privately that the Hindujas' clout can be gauged from the manner in which the brothers have blocked the documents since 1990.

The first cbi chargesheet has barely touched upon their role in Bofors alleging that "the Hinduja brothers are believed to be behind secret coded accounts in the name of Pitco/Moresco/Moineao and AE Services of UK" and certain unknown public servants. Preliminary cbi investigations had revealed in the early '90s that the Hindujas were beneficiaries in the Bofors deal, even though "their margins were reduced drastically by the time the deal was actually signed". On their part, the Hindujas have maintained that they received no money in the Bofors deal, but investigators maintain the Hindujas' role first came to light when they started to "unnecessarily" defend themselves.

Now, sources say, the Hindujas - particularly Srichand - have invoked a strange clause in their mutual assistance on criminal matters (imac) designed to get the papers to India. The Hinduja stand, quoted from significant sections under imac, is as follows: "In the application of this act, the sovereignty, security, public order or similar essential interests of Switzerland shall be taken into account." Put simply, if the papers concerning the Hindujas are sent to India, Swiss interests will suffer. This seems more in the nature of a threat and a somewhat ambivalent stand to take about a country which has remained neutral in the case so far.

Well-placed sources in the cbi say that the Indian government has not shown the same keenness to follow up the Bofors chargesheet with further investigations, mainly the procurement of the second set of documents which is expected to provide the Ôlarger picture' to the controversy that has been played out for well over a decade. "We do not know when the papers are going to come. It could take two or three months or even longer," says a key cbi official connected to the investigations. The required impetus to procure the last and crucial set of papers is sadly missing.

Which brings us again to the question: is the bjp-led government keen at all to get the final set of documents? Officials say so far it has not engaged the services of either a lawyer or a lobbyist to expedite the papers. The government, for instance, can strongly urge the Swiss authorities to reject the Hindujas' appeal as it casts aspersions on the Indian legal and judicial system. When contacted, the Indian ambassador in Switzerland, K.P. Balakrishnan, said: "I do not want to talk about this. The Indian government will know what the position is." As opposed to this, the Hindujas are reportedly working overtime - particularly after the first chargesheet has been filed - to further block the papers from coming to India. Their spin-doctors and public relations lobbyists have been hard at work, pressing their innocence and condemning the "unnecessary vilification".

Analysts say the larger gameplan here has more to do with the principles of collaboration with India in the payoffs case. As per the terms of agreement for the transfer of the Bofors papers, the Indian government had made it clear that those were not meant for public disclosure of any kind. Any leak about the papers or any information given would automatically foreclose the option of the next set of documents coming to Indian authorities. Some Indian analysts have questioned the wisdom of issuing a chargesheet at this stage and whether it came under the ambit of Ôpublic discourse'. Says Congress spokesman Kapil Sibal: "This government is deliberately trying to mislead the nation." Queries Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar: "Why is the government not including the name of the Hinduja brothers?"

If that were not enough, beleaguered Congressmen, put on the defensive with bjp's deft maneouvres in the Lok Sabha with Vajpayee himself challenging the Congress for a debate on Bofors, allege that a Lok Sabha debate could seriously jeopardise the chances of the rest of the papers coming to India. "It suits the bjp to have a debate. The more the public disclosure, the more the chances of Hindujas going in an appeal saying that the basic tenets of the transfer of papers have been violated," says a Congress spokesman.

Which is what the Hindujas have been emphasising. "There is a misconception about the real scope of the Swiss law on imac. The granting of international assistance by Switzerland is a formal procedure where the substance of the case pending in the foreign country is not examined by Swiss authorities. The imac does not permit Swiss authorities to examine the authenticity of documents or the guilt or innocence of the parties concerned; the transmission of documents is an automatic procedure to provide information to the requesting state," read their communication.

Chances are that this has all the portents of trouble in the days to come with some experts challenging the validity of the Hinduja stand. Legal eagles like A.G. Noorani, calling for a Ôblue book' on Bofors, say there is very little ground for the Hindujas to contest the claims now, because there is nothing new in what they have said which was rejected in earlier appeals.

Sources in the cbi say there are other important reasons for the Hindujas to impose legal hurdles. One of them could have nothing to do with Bofors. Says a senior officer: "The Hindujas could have made the mistake of channeling the Bofors money through an account which could expose illegal gun deals with Iran and Contra rebels." In fact, the then chief investigator in the Bofors payoffs case, Sten Lindstrom, had adequately hinted on this aspect of the Hindujas' involvement. This could be in addition to other kinds of payoffs that may not have anything to do with India, but which could lead to embarrassment for the India-born industrialists in their global business deals.

In a situation like this, the main question is: when will the papers come to India, if at all? Former cbi director Joginder Singh, instrumental in bringing the first lot of documents from Berne in 1997, says: "The second set of documents may prove difficult to obtain as powerful people have made payments to political parties across the spectrum." In fact, Singh had obliquely hinted after he was shunted out of office that the second set of papers would even have the "potential" to bring down a government.

Well-placed sources say that the Hindujas' role in the Bofors deal has been amply demonstrated in the diaries of former Bofors chief Ardbo, now an accused, who - apart from using codenames about alleged suspects - had also referred time and again to the Hindujas. But just how far this case has travelled in time and space can be judged from the fact that Ardbo in a statement issued last Thursday dismissed the Bofors case as a "closed chapter". Commented he: "The case in question happened 13 years ago. For me, it is a closed chapter and I intend to keep it so. I cannot understand why they (the Indian government) are taking up the case again. It has only to do with politics. It is a closed chapter and should remain buried along with some of its protagonists."

The situation perhaps make it easy for the bjp government to rake up this issue because the legal formalities involved are certain to take several years before it reaches a final settlement - if it does at all. The main trouble relates to the extradition of various accused, none of whom now live in India.

Similar is the case with the other accused. Though an extradition treaty has been signed with the uae to get back accused Win Chadha, its contours are far from clear. Similarly, it would be a tough task to extradite Quattrocchi from Malaysia, although the Indian government has once again approached the Malaysian government. As for Ardbo, the enterprise seems doomed from the beginning. Says Asa Arvidson, spokesperson for the Swedish foreign ministry on Indian affairs: "There is no question of extradition. We never extradite Swedish citizens, whatsoever the case."

Government sources are candid in their private observations that it will not be easy to nail the Hindujas. Their clout with earlier as well as the present government is far too strong for anyone to just mess around with. But that could in the end be one of the determining factors in the long drawn out Bofors saga.

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