February 29, 2020
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The Suave, Arrogant Influence Peddler

The capital’s jet- set knew him as the affable, suave and hospitable, if canny, representative of a major transnational; bureaucratic and political circles saw him as an aggressive, arrogant influence peddler

The Suave, Arrogant Influence Peddler

OTTAVIO Quattrocchi had two faces. The capital’s jet- set knew him as the affable, suave and hospitable, if canny, representative of a major transnational; bureaucratic and political circles saw him as an aggressive, arrogant influence peddler who ruthlessly exploited his proximity to the Gandhi family.

The Italian executive first came to India in 1964. He spent the next two years in Nigeria before returning in 1967 to work on his first Snamprogetti project, the Madras Refinery. With him was his bride. Maria Quattrocchi, described by friends as the ‘driving force’ behind her husband’s rise to power, forged a close association with the Maino family which began visiting India after Rajiv’s marriage to Sonia in 1968. Indira Gandhi apparently did not relish hosting the clan at the prime minister’s house and was quite happy to have them boarding at the Quattrocchis. Since Sonia’s mother did not speak English, Maria acted as interpreter and took her shopping.

The relationship was to develop, over the next two decades, to the point where the Quattrocchis had passes (according to IB sources) providing "unrestricted access to the portico of the prime minister’s house", took private holidays with the Gandhi family and hosted birthday parties and wine and pasta gettogethers with them. The younger two of the four Quattrocchi children grew up playing with Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi.

This association has now become a severe embarrassment for 10, Janpath. Over the last fortnight, Sonia’s supporters have progressed from officially denying any association with the Quattrocchis, to admitting an acquaintance to expressing hurt at the manner in which he apparently abused this relationship. Quattrocchi claims he is being subjected to a media trial: "I am disgusted by the way the Indian press has played up this matter. And I am saddened by the way the Malaysian press has given credibility to reports without checking the facts."

While the foundations of the friendship were being laid in the ’70s, the Quattrocchis and Snamprogetti were getting favours from the Gandhis. During the late ’70s, the Quattrocchis lay low but in 1980, with Indira Gandhi’s return to power, they re-emerged, as the inexplicable award of the massive Thai- Vaishet project to the Snamprogetti- Topsoe combine rocked Parliament. K. P. Unnikrishnan, MP, who led the charge, found himself under surveillance and the premises of those suspected of supplying him with information raided. Upset, Quattrocchi is said to have blocked his reentry into the Congress. Sonia evidently shared his anger; she reportedly snubbed P. Upendra at Hyderabad airport, having mistaken him for Unnikrishnan.

Quattrocchi’s fortunes blossomed after the death of Sanjay Gandhi (who did not care for the Italians). He is said to have played a role in the estrangement between the Gandhi daughters-in- law. During the period from 1980- 84, a senior IB official recalls seeing Quattrocchi often at Rajiv Gandhi’s office. His clout with the Gandhis was demonstrated when the then fertiliser minister Ram Chandra Rath couldn’t see him at 15- minutes notice because he was lunching with the Orissa governor. "I didn’t know who he was at the time," recalls Rath. He paid with his political career.

Rajiv’s ascent multiplied Quattrocchi’s clout. The character of his business dealings changed; he became less an executive and more a middleman, dabbling in the power, steel, fertiliser, petroleum and defence sectors. "Snamprogetti became only a front," says a senior Janata Dal leader. Not that the firm could complain; it is believed to have handled Rs 15,000 crore worth of fertiliser projects. "No fertiliser plant could be set up without his say. He even shaped policies in this sector," recalls a former Congressman.

Quattrocchi’s influence was being felt further afield. Foreign firms hoping to do business in India found it expedient to get in touch with him. He cultivated bureaucrats in key positions and was known to speak to them over the RAX . At least one Congressman recalls hearing him threatening to sack a minister.

Quattrocchi also became prominent socially, entertaining diplomats, a host of businessman and a sprinkling of socialites. He was the archetypal middleman: expansive, earthy, full of laughter and fond of showing off, with an unctuous manner. The thickset Italian with the perpetual grin and his dumpy but jolly wife insinuated themselves into the fast, cosmopolitan, rich, upwardly mobile set. He was full of bureaucratic gossip, name- dropped constantly and made no secret of his proximity to the Gandhi family.

His circle included hawala accused S. K. Jain, industrialists Charanjit Singh, the Nandas, Lalit Suri and L. M. Thapar. Among the politicians, he was believed to have known Congressman R. Prabhu, Vasant Sathe, M. L. Fotedar and P. A. Sangma. Maria was often seen with Sonia, Sterre Sharma and Nina Arun Singh.

Maria appears to have had Quattrocchi under her thumb. "She dominated him... his gregarious manner was toned down around her," recalls a friend. Quattrocchi had a penchant for tasteful gifts; his courtship of a bureaucrat often began with gifting an objet d’art , usually a porcelain figurine. Casual giveaways included books and alarm clocks. Just before the Indo- Italian festival, delegates received a reproduction, on silk, of a medieval map of India discovered in Florence.

He was inordinately proud of his heavily accented Hindi. Seven full- time servants looked after their two-storeyed mansion in Friend’s Colony, including an Indian chef trained in Italian cuisine. They threw lavish parties of 10 to 15 people often and gatherings of a hundred or more at Christmas and New Year. Shortly before he fled the country, Quattrocchi  was planning to buy a house in upmarket Amrita Sher- Gil Marg, but the deal fell through. Good times came to an end with Rajiv’s death in 1991. Quattrocchi is believed to have met godman Chandraswami to win favour with P. V. Narasimha Rao.

Snamprogetti, which parted company with Quattrocchi last year, is eager to distance itself from him. It may have gained from Quattrocchi’s contacts, but is paying the price now, not having received any contracts since 1992. As for Quattrocchi, he says: "I chose to remain silent". For the verbose, garrulous Italian, that must be a new experience.

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