Chitra Subramaniam versus Sonia: The Bofors saga continues
Bofors booms again -- with investigative journalist Chitra Subramaniam, in an interview to the latest issue of Savvy magazine, accusing Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi of being less than innocent in the payoffs scandal.
In the process, Subramaniam could in all probability have redefined the agenda of the ongoing election campaign, and turned the focus back four-square on the controversial arms deal.
It needs mentioning that Sonia herself exhumed the Bofors ghost when, in her second whistle-stop of her campaign under the Congress banner, in Bangalore, she dared the government to publish the relevant documents which, she claimed, would exonerate the Gandhi name.
Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral met the challenge with a stonewall, to the effect that as per the agreement with Swiss authorities, the government could not release the documents in its possession. The Bharatiya Janata Party for its part contented itself with statements pointing accusing fingers at Rajiv Gandhi.
And now Subramaniam has upped the stakes -- with an article that could well provide fuel to the BJP as it steps up its poll campaign against its principal adversary, the Congress.
"There is enough evidence available with India to start legal proceedings against a whole lot of people. There are enough people in Sweden who will say under oath that it was made clear to them that there would be no contract until A E Services, the front company linked to Quattrocchi was paid," Subramaniam says.
"On February 8, 1997, Sweden's top investigator Sten Lindstrom, who headed the Bofors investigation in that country, broke his 10-year silence to say that if India probed the Quattrocchi link, it would reveal the connection between the gun deal and the political payoffs. Asked if this was the Gandhi link that had dogged the Bofors affair, he said, 'All information we had at that time pointed in this direction.' "
"He said that this very Gandhi link was being explored when under pressure from India, the investigation in Sweden was called off in early 1988."
Could Sonia Gandhi have been merely a bystander? The wife, all unknowing of her husband the Indian prime minister's activities?
"As Sting often told me," says Subramaniam, referring to the unnamed source who has been helping her in her investigations, "we are not going to find cheques with their (Rajiv's and Sonia's) names on it. However, the link is through Quattrocchi. Quattrocchi transferred part of the bribes to an account in the Channel Islands. The Government of India has just sought help from the UK for information on these accounts. A simpler thing would be to ask Bofors why they paid Quattrocchi and who introduced Quattrocchi, working in the petrochemicals sector, to Bofors, an arms company.
"You don't have to be a genius to come to the obvious conclusion, to ask: Why did Bofors pay Quattrocchi? On whose instructions? Quattrocchi has passed the money on to an account in the Channel Islands and there are documents available with the Government of India to prove all this. To whom has he passed on the money? If it was not a member of the Gandhi family, then why did the Government of India mount such a massive, ten-year cover up?" she asks.
"One has been asking around," she goes on. "One has spoken to people who have followed the negotiations closely as also those who interrogated Bofors officials. The Gandhi connection is never far away. I have asked Sting this question several times over. He said if Rajiv Gandhi was not involved then he should have found out who was involved instead of blocking the investigation. Obviously, he couldn't. What does that tell you?
"The political payoff was made though A E Services. This company cut into the deal three months before the contract was signed. This company's contract says it need not be paid if Bofors does not get the contract before a certain date. Ottavio Quattrocchi is linked to this company and Swiss bank papers show him as having given instructions to a bank to send the bribe money on to the Channel Islands. Quattrocchi came into the deal after Arun Nehru fell out with the Gandhis, in particular, it is believed, with Sonia. You can see Nehru's role in the deal up to a point after which Quattrocchi comes in."
"Who is Quattrocchi? He is Sonia's friend. It is no secret in Delhi that this Italian ran his own durbar including interfering in issues of national interest to India.... What gave this obscure Italian so much power and influence that even Cabinet ministers lined up for his attention? Everybody knows that Quattrocchi, an ordinary accountant, rose to dominate the corridors of power in New Delhi because of his friendship with Sonia Gandhi and later, her husband..."
Subramaniam is openly dismissive of Sonia Gandhi's recent entry onto the political proscenium. "Of course we cannot be indifferent to Sonia Gandhi's personal tragedy," says the journalist. "Today Sonia makes a speech about her husband's blood having drenched India's ground. What about the Sikhs slaughtered in 1984? What about the blood of those who blew up with Rajiv even as they were trying to protect him? I mean, somewhere, somebody has to start asking these questions."
Questions that spare none, not excluding incumbent Finance Minister P Chidambaram. "Chidambaram wrote after Rajiv Gandhi's death that the best tribute the country could pay to the man would be to close the Bofors investigation," she recalls, adding, "I would have thought a true friend would have said the contrary -- that the best tribute would be to clear his name once and for all. Unless, of course, Chidambaram is not convinced about his friend's innocence?"
Subramaniam makes it clear that the biggest sense of betrayal came not when she first began unravelling the tangled skein of skullduggery that is Bofors, but when she first heard the Gandhi name mentioned in that connection.
To answer that, Subramaniam flashes back to that moment in time when the Bofors scam was just beginning to unfold and Sting first mentioned the Gandhi name in the context of malfeasance.
"I shall never forget the day Sting used the word 'Gandhi'," she recalls. "He said that Martin Ardbo, the chief Bofors executive who negotiated the contract with India, had noted in his diary a meeting with 'Gandhi Trustee lawyer' in Geneva. I didn't believe him. That diary was in Swedish, I think I asked four different Swedish friends to translate that line to me..."
But why was the Gandhi name harder to swallow than Ripley's best? "When Rajiv made that famous speech in Bombay when the Congress turned 100, he said he would clean the party and the country of power brokers and corrupt people. Many of us held our breath expecting him to deliver," she remembers. "He could easily have done it. He had the whole country under his charm, and an unprecedented mandate in Parliament." And that, she concludes, was why it was so difficult to believe, why the feeling of betrayal was so strong.
Citing chapter and verse culled from her ongoing investigations into the Bofors scam, Subramaniam stirs up a hornet's nest that could yet sting Sonia and, by association, the Congress. And then adds fuel to the already promising fire by casting a hard look at Sonia's credentials to lead the Congress in the battle of the ballot.
"Sonia Gandhi is just an ordinary lady. Nothing wrong with that, but look at the way we treat Indians in the same situation.
"We praise Sonia Gandhi as if she were the goddess of infinite wisdom and virtue and prime ministers clear Cabinet appointments with her and finance ministers allocate money to her foundations. Everybody questions Rabri Devi and ridicules her ordinariness. But what is the difference between Sonia Gandhi and Rabri Devi?
"As far as I can see, one is white and the other is brown."
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