BOFORS kickbacks scandal refuses to die down, successive Congress Government’s flagrant cover up and obstruction of justice notwithstanding. The Income Tax Appellant Tribunal has resurrected the scandal by ruling that Ottivio Quattrocchi, the Italian businessman close to the Gandhi family, did receive kickbacks amounting to Rs nine crore for facilitating the gun deal with the Swedish manufacturer. The Tribunal also found out that the late Win Chadha, the agent of Bofors in India, also received Rs 52.6 crore as commission.
Holding that both Quattrocchi and Win Chadha are liable to pay tax on the “commission” they had earned from Bofors, the Tribunal asked the Income Tax Department to take the recovery of tax arrears from the Italian businessman as a challenge. Inaction in recovering tax arrears, the Tribunal observed, might lead to a notion that India is a soft state and one can meddle with its tax laws with impunity”. The Tribunal’s order has queered the pitch of the Congress that has been rattled by corruption charges in major scams and electoral defeats in Bihar and Karnataka. Ironically, the ruling came a few days before the CBI was to seek court’s permission to close the case against the Italian businessman on the untenable premise that there was not enough evidence to proceed against him.
CBI that has been aptly dubbed as Congress Bureau of Intrigues has put forward amusing arguments to support its closure plea. The agency’s justification for its plea is in fact its failures and lethargy prompted by its desire to please its political masters. It argues that it has already spent Rs 250 crore on its unsuccessful attempts to get Quattrocchi extradited from Malaysia and Argentina and that it was an old case that must reach a “plausible” conclusion. The plausible conclusion, the agency needs to remember, is conviction of the accused. It doesn’t want the court to go into the merits of the case (presumably because its request has no merit) but to accept its request that is “bona fide, in good faith and in public interest”. CBI is wrong on all the three counts. Its closure report is mala fide, smacks of bad faith and is certainly not in public interest. Wrapping up the corruption case at this juncture may be in the interest of those who took commissions but failed to pay income tax and those in power who are suspected of having supported the Italian wheeler dealer in his nefarious activities. Italian’s only connection with Bofors was his proximity to Gandhi family. Facts speak for themselves.
Quattrocchi’s account in a London bank suspected to be holding the kickback money were frozen by the British Government on the request of the NDA Government in 2003. The account was de-frozen by the Congress-led Government in 2008. It is also well known that HR Bhardwaj, the then Union Law Minister, who now holds a high constitutional office, flew to London to facilitate the process. In 1993, the Italian, who was under cloud because of his involvement in the scandal, was allowed to escape from India in mysterious circumstances. P V Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister at that point of time.
Compared to 2G massive scam running into several lakh crore of rupees, the Bofors scandal pertaining to taking and giving bribes of Rs 64 crore could have been dismissed as peanuts but for the massive cover up by successive Congress Governments and regimes supported by the party and because there are reasons to believe that the most powerful man in the country at that point of time was also involved in the scam. The party was, and is, desperate to protect Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was also one of the accused in the corruption scandal pertaining to the Rs 1,437 crore deal between India and A B Bofors for the purchase of 400 155 mm howitzers. He was subsequently cleared by the Delhi High Court. Unfortunately, for the reasons best known to the powers that be, the no appeal was preferred in the Supreme Court against the late Gandhi’s acquittal.
About a year after the deal was signed, the Swedish Radio claimed that the Bofors had paid kickbacks to Indian politicians and defence officials. A political storm rocked India. The Press and the Opposition took up the issue in right earnest. Sections of the ruling party too lent moral support to the demand for a fair and robust enquiry into the scandal. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was on the back foot, declared on the floor of Parliament that no middlemen were involved in the deal and that no kickbacks were paid to anyone. He also sought to assure Parliament that neither he nor any member of his family had accepted any bribe. Not many were convinced by the Prime Minister’s assertions. The Bofors saga is similar to the Watergate scandal that consumed American President Richard Nixon. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of Washington Post wrote series of exposures on the basis of information leaked by an insider – the man who called himself “Deep Throat”. Chitra Subramaniam, the Geneva Correspondent of The Hindu, did play a magnificent role in unearthing the documents that revealed how bribe was given and taken under the garb of “commission”. Arun Shourie and several other investigative journalists did the rest. Under attack from the Press and the Opposition, Congress Government tried to explain away the scam by describing these payments as “winding up” charges. The late V P Singh, who was Defence Minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s Government, is believed to have played a role similar to that of “Deep throat” that led to the Congress Party’s defeat in 1989 parliamentary elections.
Sonia Gandhi, whose proximity to Quattrocchi is no secret, has been hugely embarrassed by the resurrection of the Bofors scandal. She is not the only one who has reason to worry. Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is also in the line of fire for having exonerated the Italian wheeler dealer even while CBI’s closure report was pending in court. Income Tax Appellant Tribunal has based its order on hard evidence to rule that Quattrocchi was a middleman and that he did receive kickbacks. Since it is no longer a mere allegation leveled by the Opposition but an official agency that has found the Italian guilty, a public apology from the Prime Minister would be in order. The Government can’t be absolved of the responsibility of messing up the case and later asserting that no case was made out against the Italian wheeler dealer. There is a compelling need to re-open the criminal investigation into the quarter century old corruption case. CBI’s credibility having reached its nadir in cases involving powerful politicians, an enquiry by the agency would not carry conviction. The Congress-led Government would go to any length to prevent revival of the corruption case because the prestige of the late Prime Minister and the present Congress president is involved. Those who are in power may ultimately succeed in getting immunity from prosecution at the bar of law but there would be no immunity for them from prosecution at the bar of public opinion.