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Bofors: Remember the time?

By Saisuresh Sivaswamy
June 03, 2005 11:30 IST
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It's a curse that refuses to go, all right. For near on 20 years, the Bofors scandal has dragged on, claiming a government in its wake, soiling reputations, and building some. Through it all, we are no closer to knowing the identity of the ultimate beneficiary of the commissions paid to secure the howitzers deal from the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government in the 1980s.

And, with Tuesday's court ruling clearing the Hinduja brothers of any involvement in the corruption scandal, the case is now DOA (dead on arrival). Unless, mystery man Ottavio Quattrochi, who is the last accused standing in the scam, has a change of heart and takes to singing. Before a judge

On rediff: Bofors, The Smoking Gun

The kickbacks -- one of the many words that Indian journalism acquired in the course of covering the scandal; another was the letter rogatory -– in the 1980s amounted to Rs 64 crore, a piffling amount by today's global economy standards. The court, in the course of its order on Tuesday, also slammed the Central Bureau of Investigation for spending in excess of Rs 250 crore in unearthing the scandal, which is four times the original amount.

Sure, there's a scandal somewhere.

Today's generation, of course, is no stranger to scandals, each bigger than the other. But in a lot many ways, the Bofors scam stands out, not merely because it is the only one in the 55 years of our Republic that led to a prime minister's electoral defeat.

It taught us -- the young India that had been enamoured of a youthful prime minister; the moralist India that found the stench of corruption in high office repugnant; the hopeful India that rallied around a man who claimed to be the real Mr Clean, only to be disappointed anon -– many things.

Chief among those lessons being, a politician and his word, not entirely unlike a fool and his money, are easily parted.

To know what I am saying, you should have been there, in the heady days of the Verdict of 1984. The nation forgot the amount of blood spilled just a few weeks earlier and voted as it had never before, as it never will, in favour of a man who had no prior experience of holding elective office. It was often said that this was a verdict that even Rajiv Gandhi's grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru was not given. Just as well, for it may be added that Nehru, whatever be his other ills, never squandered his mandate the way his descendant would.

But to be fair, Rajiv Gandhi did many things right. He opened the window to a hermetically sealed economy, long before the next Congress government, in 1991, was forced to unlock the front door. It is thanks to his vision that I am sitting here and punching out this criticism of his government on my comp, and I can't help grinning at how he and his advisors were widely derided as the Computer Boys.

And then he threw all the goodwill by his stupid, ill-advised moves once Swedish Radio broke the news that slush money had been paid in India to secure the Bofors contract.

A man's character is tested, and proved, under adversity; seeing the prime minister react in an unbefitting manner, no wonder Vishwanath Pratap Singh felt emboldened to take him on and ultimately unseat him.

When a scandal breaks, what would a government that has nothing to hide do? Order an open inquiry that will satisfy everyone. And what did the Rajiv Gandhi government do? First, it passed a resolution against the Swedish Radio expose, condemning it as an effort to destabilise the government and the country.

Throughout the political twists and turns that followed, there was no shred of evidence to nail anyone -- not even the postman -- for delays. In the absence of clinching evidence, what can one go by? Convincing, however circumstantial, evidence, naturally.

So the scandal became one of unanswered questions, which it remains to this day.

Why, for one, did Rajiv Gandhi not go after the truth like his life depended on it? Why did he hesitate to order an impartial inquiry to get at the bottom of the case? Why have a one-sided joint parliamentary probe that was packed with his party's men and which, predictably, gave the government a clean chit? Why, if his government had nothing to hide, did it go after the press, in particular Indian Express, which was unearthing evidence that contrary to claims, kickbacks had indeed been paid in the deal?

Nothing much has changed today. The courts proclaim verdict on the basis of evidence presented before them. If the high court has thrown out the case, it is because of the shoddy presentation of evidence and the like. Is it any surprise that the prosecuting agency has done a slapdash job under a Congress government?

Venality doesn't lie only in practicing corruption, or in encouraging corruption. Even an unwillingness to take action in the face of corruption, is venal. A prime minister who claimed to be Mr Clean forgot this basic lesson.

His successor, V P Singh, may today say that he never targeted prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, but that is in the fond hope that public memory is short. If he were to scour newspaper records from then -- digitalised in keeping with the times, most of them are -- he is sure to find evidence to the contrary. And, if he ever told his Janata Dal workers not to chant their favourite slogan -– Galli Galli Mein Shor Hain-you-know-who chor hain -- at public meetings, there is no record of it.

How ironical that the man who promised to deliver the truth 'in 30 days' if he became prime minister, has himself fallen by the wayside today! The Bofors scandal has thus claimed not one, but two prime ministers.

If Rajiv Gandhi promised to deceive, in V P Singh's case it was deception all through. There was no way any government could have unearthed the truth in the payoffs scam -- in the shadowy world of defence kickbacks the only trails are to the grave -- but he fed the public a campaign of suggestive, nudge-nudge wink-wink vilification, and damned by implication. And when he could not deliver as the messiah for the middle class who pinned its hopes on him, he quickly refashioned himself as the saviour of the backward classes.

Reputations and political careers alone are not the casualty in the Bofors scandal. The truth, which the public has every right to know, is its biggest victim.

Do you remember the Bofors scandal? Write to me your thoughts at

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Saisuresh Sivaswamy