A tactical move

Published : Feb 21, 1998 00:00 IST

While Sonia Gandhi has made an audacious challenge with regard to the Bofors issue, Prime Minister I.K. Gujral is feigning helplessness in the matter and wants the people to believe that he cannot disclose the names of the recipients of payoffs.

SONIA GANDHI's challenge to the Government in her election campaign speech for the Congress party - to come out with the names of the recipients of the Bofors payoffs - is most audacious. Nobody expected Sonia to take the offensive on Bofors, an issue on which she was regarded as being most vulnerable. In fact, the Swiss bank account documents of AE Services Ltd., which has always been regarded as the smoking gun in the contract, came to the Government almost a year ago. They showed that this account, in which more than Rs. 50 crores of payoffs had been deposited, belonged to none other than the close confidant and family friend of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi - Ottavio Quattrocchi.

Quattrocchi, the then representative in India of the Italian firm Snam Progetti, had been instrumental in swinging a number of deals for his company during the time of Indira Gandhi and later Rajiv Gandhi. However, he was not known to have played any role in swinging the Bofors contract. Unlike Win Chaddha who was the official agent for Bofors, and the Hindujas, who were the behind-the-scenes-brokers and movers for procuring the contract for Bofors, Quattrocchi was not known to have played any role. It is this which prompted the Sonia faithful, former CBI Director R.C. Sharma, to say that Quattrocchi was not involved at all in the Bofors deal (a statement made to The Pioneer after Sonia's challenge). Sharma, however, went on to add that the mere payment of money by Bofors into Quattrocchi's account could not be connected to the Bofors contract. The lack of evidence to show that Quattrocchi had played any role in this contract for Bofors was enough for Sharma to put up a defence on behalf of Quattrocchi, and thus of Sonia. Sharma was thus suggesting that the money paid by Bofors into Quattrocchi's account may have been for something other than the Bofors-India howitzer contract.

By making this statement, Sharma was banking on the fact that nobody would have access to the Special Investigation Team report on Bofors which had been filed with the Government by his predecessor Joginder Singh in May 1997 and which seeks the Government's sanction for charge-sheeting some former government officials, such as Gopi Arora (former Finance Secretary) and S.K. Bhatnagar (former Defence Secretary), and also squarely seeks to charge-sheet Quattrocchi. R.C. Sharma could not be so dull as to believe that the huge Bofors payoffs deposited in Quattrocchi's account are for anything other than the Bofors contract. He knew that Quattrocchi's account was that of AE Services Ltd., which had got into the deal just before the signing of the contract and walked away with a 3 per cent commission on this contract at the expense of Win Chaddha. All these facts have been published by The Hindu, Frontline and various other newspapers subsequently. Sharma was hoping that in today's polluted atmosphere, the people at large would not know the Quattrocchi connection with the account in the name of AE Services Ltd. and that the payments into this account by Bofors represented the 3 per cent commission admitted to have been paid by the Swedish arms manufacturing company in connection with this contract (although Bofors earlier called them winding-up charges).

Now, why should Bofors pay this amount to Quattrocchi when he had played no ostensible role, either as agent or even behind the scenes, to secure this contract for Bofors? Quattrocchi himself has asserted that he was not the agent of Bofors and did not play any role in procuring the contract for Bofors. To that extent, he is right. And yet, Bofors did make the payment - and a huge amount at that - into his account. The obvious answer is that Quattrocchi is the nominated holder of this money on behalf of someone else. And that explains why the money flew out of this account, soon after coming in, to some other Channel Island account.

THE question, therefore, is: whose nominee was Quattrocchi in this deal? The circumstances in which this payment was made and the manner in which the real beneficiary was sought to be camouflaged by building up at least two layers of cover (first AE Services Ltd. and then Quattrocchi) leave no room for doubt that this payment represented an outright bribe to an official who was in a position to have this contract awarded to Bofors. Who were the officials who had any significant influence over the award of the contract? Only three persons are known to have played a key role in the award of this contract. They were, in order of importance, Rajiv Gandhi, who was then the Prime Minister and also the Defence Minister, S.K. Bhatnagar, who was then the Defence Secretary, and Gen. K. Sundarji, who was then the Chief of the Army Staff. Quattrocchi was, therefore, fronting for any of these three key officials. Quattrocchi is not known to have had any kind of relationship with, say, S.K. Bhatnagar. However, he was known to have been very close to Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, being virtually a member of the household who could also walk into Cabinet meetings and use the Prime Minister's top security RAX phone. Moreover, it was Rajiv who played by far the most crucial role in the award of this contract and it is far-fetched to think that officials who played a relatively minor role in the contract could have been thought by Bofors to have deserved more than Rs.50 crores.

There is absolutely no room for doubt, therefore, that Quattrocchi was fronting for Rajiv Gandhi and that the money from his account which flowed into his Channel Island account belonged to Rajiv Gandhi. In my book, Bofors - The Selling of a Nation, (1990) I wrote: 'Who was the main beneficiary of the Bofors payoffs? It is generally thought that the answer to that question is yet to come and that the Bofors story is still incomplete... The answer may surprise the casual observer. An analysis shows that the answers to all the important questions about the Bofors affair emerged by themselves on a close scrutiny of facts already known. Thus, there is no doubt whatsoever that Chaddha and the Hindujas were the middlemen in the deal and Rajiv Gandhi himself was the main beneficiary. The remaining information about the bank accounts in Switzerland will only tell us how the money was routed, and who the Trustees of Rajiv were.' The last chapter in the book analyses the role played by Rajiv Gandhi in the award of the contract and also in the subsequent cover-up and details more than 15 circumstances that led to the conclusion that Rajiv Gandhi himself was the main beneficiary of the Bofors payoffs.

WHY, then, did Sonia make such an audacious challenge? Prime Minister I.K. Gujral's response to the challenge gives us the answer. He says he cannot disclose the names of the recipients of the Bofors payoffs which are available from Swiss bank documents already sent to the CBI - since such disclosure would prejudice further information from the Swiss about the remaining accounts. He says that the Swiss authorities have made this information available to the CBI only for the prosecution of the recipients, and have prohibited the CBI from disclosing this information in any other forum. Even if this be so, what prevents the Government and the CBI from charge-sheeting those persons whose account documents have already come and whose culpability in this matter has been established on the basis of evidence already collected? The Special Investigation Team's report, which has been with the Government for more than eight months now, seeks to do precisely this. It seeks the Government's permission to charge-sheet those persons and officials whose culpability in this payoff and subsequent cover-ups is established on the basis of available evidence and bank documents already with the CBI. And yet, the Government has been sitting on it for eight months. If the Government had granted permission to the CBI to proceed with the charge-sheeting of these officials, and the CBI were to file the charge-sheets, all these bank account documents which are already with the CBI would be attached to the charge-sheets and would become public documents. That would be a major and crushing response to Sonia's challenge. But Gujral has clearly declined the challenge and wants us to believe that he is helpless and cannot disclose the names of the recipients. The very audacity of Sonia's challenge is a clear indication of her prior assurance of Gujral's 'helplessness' in this matter.

The history of the Bofors scandal, now more than a decade old, has been a history of repeated cover-ups by successive governments. The initial cover-up by the Government of Rajiv Gandhi fell apart thanks to the assiduous pursuit of the investigation by the press, especially The Hindu. It was only during the one year of V.P. Singh's Prime Ministership that a serious investigation was begun into the matter; during this period, the Bofors accounts were frozen and the letters rogatory were issued to Switzerland seeking the bank account documents.

The subsequent governments of Chandra Shekhar and P.V. Narasimha Rao continued with the cover-up and soft-pedalled the investigation. Upright investigators were gradually removed from the team, which came to be headed by the pliable R.C. Sharma, who just sat on the investigation. Gujral has perhaps the most dubious record of sitting on the SIT report, seeking sanction for the first round of charge-sheeting for over eight months. He is keeping his political options open, it appears.

Prashant Bhushan is a lawyer practising in the Supreme Court.

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