August 08, 2020
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The Vajpayee Angle

THE BJP's prime ministerial hopeful A.B. Vajpayee has close links with the Hindujas, among the alleged recipients of Rs 64 crore payoffs in the Bofors scam.

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The Vajpayee Angle

The BJP's prime ministerial hopeful A.B. Vajpayee has close links with the Hindujas, among the alleged recipients of Rs 64 crore payoffs in the Bofors scam. The details of the Hinduja account are expected to figure in the second instalment of papers the Swiss authorities are to release shortly. Despite this, Vajpayee's party has taken a strident stand on Bofors.

In fact, Vajpayee did his bit to save the Hindujas. In 1992, the brothers  had offered for scrutiny by the Indian authorities one of the Swiss Bank accounts into which the Bofors payoffs had allegedly been made. (It was later learnt that the account was not the one related to Bofors.) For his part, Vajpayee wrote a letter to the then PM Narasimha Rao stating that the Hinduja offer should be taken up. The letter kicked up a controversy as the issue came up for discussion in Parliament.

The Hindujas have also helped bring Vajpayee's statesmanship to the fore in diplomatic circles—like at the UN Human Rights Conference in Geneva in 1993. The BJP leader and the then external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid, represented India and faced much flak over the Kashmir issue from Islamic nations. But the Hindu-jas came to their rescue and reportedly used their influence with Iran to get its ambassador to support India. They also played host at a banquet where the negotiations with Iran were conducted.

Vajpayee's closeness to the Hindujas also became apparent once again when he was the guest of honour at the inauguration in Mumbai of the Indus Ind Bank owned by the Hindujas. As he was at a Diwali banquet hosted by the brothers in London.

In fact, London was the site of Vajpayee's most revealing interaction with the Hindujas. In 1995, he was part of a parliamentary delegation on board along with the Hindujas on what became an eventful boat ride on the Thames. Somnath Chatterjee, CPI(M) MP, said after the boat docked after three hours up and down the river that he had no idea the cruise was a Hinduja affair. "Suddenly these two brothers appeared and took over," he said in Calcutta later, adding that he felt like jumping overboard (he did not). Vajpayee expressed his feelings just as eloquently with his silence.

Interestingly, election expenses surfaced on that boat. The MPs from different parties were the Parliament in miniature, and the Hindujas were telling them what the Indian government should seek to accomplish. India's policies, Chatterjee pointed out gently, could not be decided on board Silver Dolphin. If Vajpayee, as leader of the Opposition, thought the on-board advice was not in order, he didn't say so.

Srichand Hinduja was candid in the changes he wanted his passenger leaders to swing: the MPs, he began after lunch, must get India to introduce "transparency and accountability". And brother Gopichand told his guests what they should do: "You must agree on a single economic policy." Through those hours on the Thames, one question stood out: what gave two Hinduja brothers the confidence to get the leaders into a boat and instruct them on what to do with India? As the seniormost leader on board, Vajpayee found nothing wrong with the Hinduja attempt to guide Indian policy on the Silver Dolphin. It was a noticeably indicative silence.

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