The spectre of Bofors has once again come to haunt the ruling Congress, exactly a year after the UPA government led by the party unashamedly and surreptitiously allowed the de-freezing of fugitive Italian businessman Ottavio Quattro-cchi'sLondon accounts.
It was on February 6 that the Bofors pay-off case accused was detained at an airport in Argentina following a red corner alert issued by Interpol. Two days later, the International Police Organisation officially informed its Indian counterpart CBI about the detention but India'spremier investigating agency, which goes to town and shouts from the rooftops even if it gets a bank clerk convicted for taking a Rs 50 bribe, sought to keep the information under the wraps.
In a brazen act of suppression of information, the CBI did not utter a word about the detention before the Supreme Court when the latter on February 13, 2007 sought its response to a petition for retrieving the money withdrawn by the Italian fugitive from the two ?defreezed? accounts in London.
Only after the matter leaked out did the CBI come out with a statement that the Argentinian authorities had informed through diplomatic channels that Quattrocchi had been detained and taken into preventive custody at Iguazu international airport in the Argentinian province of Misiones while in transit to Buenos Aires and that this information was also passed on by the Interpol, Buenos Aires to CBI.
Later, the CBI spokesman dished out a specious argument defending the silence that the agency wanted to confirm the veracity of Quattrocchi'sidentity and detention. He admitted that the detention was a complete surprise and attributed it to chance. European nations had refused to cooperate with CBI in the past even when Quattrocchi'swhereabouts were known, they said.
Another outrageous defence in revealing the information put forth was the difficulty in translating documents that were written in Spanish.
Apparently, the reasons lay elsewhere. As the main opposition BJP succinctly put it, the suppression of the crucial information by the CBI was a calculated and blatant political ploy to prevent the matter from becoming a poll issue in the elections to the Punjab and Uttarakhand Assemblies.
And as if making a mockery of the nation'sintelligence, the CBI on February 26, barely three days after breaking its silence, comes out with the information that Quattrocchi has been released on bail by the Federal Court of El Dorado city in Misiones province and that he has been prohibited from leaving Argentina.
Lately, it has also come to light that the Bofors accused was denied bail in his first attempt and he got bail on February 23 only after a second appeal to a higher court in Argentina on production of a surety and on surrendering his passport.
It cannot, apparently, be a sheer coincidence that the CBI made public information about Quattrocchi'sdetention on the day (February 23) the fugitive was released from custody and that this information was given out only three days later.
What'smore, while the External Affairs Ministry was seeking confirmation of Quattrocchi'sarrest, it was playing host to the fugitive'sson Massimo as part of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi'shigh-powered business delegation to India.
?The CBI team left for Argentina with extradition documents so as to reach there in the forenoon of March 2, 2007, to pursue the extradition matter in the Argentinian court as per law?, the CBI said in its February 23 release.
However, when an agitated opposition led by Shri L.K. Advani pointed out the existence of an Extradition Treaty between the two countries, the Ministry of External Affairs was quick to come out with a rebuttal saying the BJP leader'sreference was to an agreement between the UK, Ireland and the Argentine republic, which was applicable only to British India.
?However, post-Indian Independence and following the enactment of The Extradition Act 1962 by the Indian Parliament, the Treaty of 1889 is not operative since it was not notified in accordance with Section 3, clause (3) of the Act, after having obtained the consent of the Government of Argentine republic. Thus India does not have any currently operative extradition treaty with Argentina?, it said.
But MEA should know that the former Deputy Prime Minister knows his facts too well. The rule book of the CBI issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 1981 declares Argentina a partner country with which India holds an extradition treaty.
According to a leading newspaper, the document titiled International Criminal Police Organisation Interpol issued by the Interpol wing of the CBI in 1981 mentions Argentina as one of the countries with whom the pre-Independence extradition treaties continue to be in force according to Indian law.
The document exposes another major lapse on the part of the CBI that could have prevented Quattrocchi'sbail. It suggests that the countries with whom valid extradition treaties exist, can be requested for provisional arrest of the fugitive till formal proceedings are initiated.
In its zeal to protect the Italian fugitive, whose family ties with the UPA chairperson are widely known, the government even dismissed a statement in Parliament made by none other than the family patriarch and the country'sfirst Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.
Shri Advani had pointed out that in his reply to a question raised in Parliament on March 16, 1956, he mentioned Argentina as one of the states with which India holds a valid extradition agreement. In fact, Argentina is mentioned at serial number two in the list containing the names of 45 countries.
Nehru'sreply has been recorded even in the yearbook of the International Law Commission of 1970 emphasising that the treaty with Argentina has been inherited by India as a successor state.
No wonder then that the Supreme Court on February 27 took cognizance of an application filed by Advocate Ajay Agrawal seeking extradition of Quattrocchi by the CBI. A bench headed by Justice C.K. Thakker has asked the government to respond on this issue in its affidavit to be filed within a week.
The apex court is already seized of a separate application pertaining to the Centre'sfailure to disclose the arrest of Quattrocchi to the court on February 12, almost four days after it got confirmation of his arrest from the Argentinian authorities.
In the Parliament, the main Opposition BJP accused the Prime Minister of trying to protect the key accused in the Bofors pay-off case and showing disrespect to the House by speaking on the issue outside it.
Feigning innocence, the Prime Minister claimed that CBI has been given ?full freedom? to pursue the case and there will be no interference.
?We will not interfere in the functioning of the CBI. Rule of law will prevail?, he said.
While leaders of Opposition in both Houses, Shri L.K. Advani and Shri Jaswant Singh, took the government to task for ?concealing? information pertaining to Quattrocchi'sarrest and sending strange signals to Argentina by its assertion that no extradition treaty existed between the two countries, the CPI(M)'sotherwise vocal Sitaram Yechuri was contented in asking what steps the government was contemplating to extradite Quattrocchi.
The entire nation is aware of CBI'sdubious role in the entire investigation. The agency, which in an April 1998 affidavit had in no ambiguous terms charged both Quattrocchi and the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for their involvement in the scam, took a U-turn in 2006 saying it had no evidence to link Quattrocchi with the Bofors pay-offs and thereby allowed the fugitive to decamp with the booty stored in his two frozen London accounts.
In the present instance too, the CBI has to answer several questions including as to why it did not utilise the Interpol Radio network through which a formal request could have been placed for Quattrocchi'sarrest.
But the nation has no great expectations from the CBI, which under the UPA regime has become both an instrument of vendetta against political opponents and a protective shield for the shady supporters of the ruling party. Quattrocchi may escape the dragnet this time around too but nemesis is bound to catch up with him sooner or later. As for the Congress, the ghost of Bofors would continue to give it sleepless nights till the culprits are brought to book and justice done. And as for the UPA Chairperson, she has been unmasked and the mother of sacrifices stands exposed as the Godmother of Corruption.