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Was he 'N'?

Arun Nehru Diplomacy used to be his career, until he chucked it to become one of Rajiv Gandhi's chosen ones. But nearly six years after the assassination of his political mentor, Indian Foreign Service officer-turned politician Mani Shankar Aiyar may be the only Congressman whose loyalty to the late prime minister is unquestioned.

Many would find it hard to believe the spirited arguments that Aiyar -- a joint secretary in the Prime Minister's Office during the Rajiv years -- advances in Rajiv's defence when discussing the controversial Bofors gun deal.

His sharp comments and ready wit are far removed from diplomacy when taking on those who allege that Rajiv was a recipient of kickbacks in the defence scandal.

In an exclusive interview to Rediff On The NeT'sGeorge Iype,Aiyar alleges that some of Rajiv's aides suppressed facts in the defence scandal.

It is now proved that huge kickbacks were paid in the Bofors gun deal. Is the Rajiv Gandhi government to be blamed for it?

Not at all. It has been known ever since June 4, 1987 when the Swedish National Audit Bureau confirmed that kickbacks changed hands in the Bofors gun deal, notwithstanding the specific instructions of Prime Minister Olaf Palme to his foreign office and to A B Bofors that no middleman should be employed and no kickbacks should be paid. So it has been known for 10 years that bribes were part of the deal.

It is true that the deal was struck during the Rajiv Gandhi regime. But Rajiv made all the efforts to get rid of all middlemen in the deal. In that effort he failed.

Rajiv did what he could. He tried to persuade and instruct Bofors with the help of the Swedish government not to have any middlemen. And the Swedish government confirmed to us that there would be no middlemen. Bofors also assured the Swedish government that there would be no middlemen.

It was only in April 1987 that the first information about the the kickbacks came to light. I think it is unfortunate that the immediate reaction in the Congress party then was to describe the news as 'malicious'.

By June 1987, it was confirmed that there were middlemen and from then onwards, it became a question of getting their names out of Bofors.

Why did Rajiv Gandhi not terminate the Bofors gun deal?

Termination of the gun deal was a top priority with Rajiv Gandhi as soon as the revelations about the kickbacks became public. He recorded a minute in his own hand in the prime minister's file in the first week of June 1987, which was subsequently tabled in Parliament by V P Singh. In that file, Rajiv asked his minister of state for defence Arun Singh some vital questions: 'Arun Singh, in the event of the Bofors contract being cancelled, what are the direct implications of not having a 155 mm howitzer inducted into our service? How long would it take to get an alternative 155 mm howitzer? What would be the kind of premium that we will have to pay to the other suppliers of 155mm howitzers? Will any other gun be able to meet the specific defence requirements against the Pakistani heat-searching radars?'

Rajiv also considered what would be the international implications of entering into a solemn contract and cancelling it mid-way. He wanted to know whether Bofors could take us to arbitration into the international chamber of commerce in Paris.

Rajiv Gandhi asked all these key questions to his defence ministry, but got back no answers.

Why did the defence ministry not consider the prime minister's request?

It would now appear from the records that although Rajiv sent these questions to Arun Singh's office in June 1987, the file reached the ministry of defence after one month.

Who held up the file?

It appears that within the Prime Minister's Office, Gopi Arora, then the secretary dealing with the matter, supressed the file.

Why did he do that?

That is a question that you as well as the Central Bureau of Investigation should ask Mr Gopi Arora.

Didn't the PM ask Gopi Arora why he was sitting on the file?

Rajiv thought Arora had passed it over and was waiting for a reply. But I have had occasions to encounter Gopi Arora and ask him why he sat over the file. But he has been unhappy about my holding him responsible for not forwarding the file to the ministry of defence.

Why did Rajiv not take up the matter again with the defence ministry?

In the light of the scandal, I do not think any minister of defence, its secretary or the chief of the army staff requires the country's prime minister to ask these questions. The defence ministry, though slowly, asked the then chief of army staff, General K Sundarji's view on the PM's questions. But instead of dealing with any of these germane questions, General Sundarji chose to put down a purely political view in a single sheet of paper.

In it the army chief said he thought it was in the larger interest of India to unilaterally terminate the contract. It was not his job to decide what was unilaterally in the larger interest of India. His job was to look into the specific defence angle, both with respect to the immediate defence requirements of our forces as well as the long-term implication of cancellation of the contract.

When the prime minister wanted Sundarji's opinion on the issue again, he presented before Rajiv Gandhi the same piece of paper with the dates changed. This is how a coup d'etat takes place. This is called army indiscipline from the part of a general vis a vis the civilian authorities which leads to military rule. It was the sort of thing we have seen happening in Pakistan.

I, therefore, charge General Sundarji with sheer disloyalty to the prime minister of India. Till today, in all the interviews that General Sundarji has given, has he answered any of these questions that Rajiv wanted to know?

But General Sundarji told Rediff On The NeT that the order to continue with the Bofors contract came from Rajiv Gandhi's office.

General Sundarji is now free to put the blame on anyone he likes. He is a private citizen of India now. But I ask the general readership of Rediff On the NeT: what do they think about the honour, the integrity and competence of a chief of army staff who in February 1986 changes his own mind with respect to the suitability of the Bofors gun and said in the light of the heat-finding radar obtained by neighbouring Pakistan from America, we need a shoot and scoot gun.

We have the example of General Thimmayya who disagreed with (the then) defence minister Krishna Menon and put in his papers. If General Sundarji had one spark of honour -- that a gentleman cadet in the Indian Military Academy is required to have -- at that time, he should have said that I will not allow a Bofors gun in our stable.

If he succumbed before the Bofors guns, that means he was a coward. Does India need cowards as chiefs of army staff? I do feel that General Sundarji was playing politics. He was playing politics in February 1986, he was playing politics in June-July 1987, he was playing politics when he gave an interview to India Today in 1989, and he was playing politics when the CBI interrogated him early this month.

Who were the beneficiaries in the Bofors deal?

At the moment the crucial question is with regard to the contract signed by A E Services and Bofors. It was signed on the 15th of November 1985 and terminated on August 8, 1986 -- a good eight months before the famous Swedish broadcast on the Bofors payoffs case. Do you think any sensible prime minister would enter into an illegal contract when he had a good three years to complete in office?

Who then was involved in the Bofors contract?

The whole Bofors contract was set up by someone who in November 1985 looked like an extremely important political personality. The mysterious individual is the 'N' mentioned in the Martin Ardbo diary. Mr 'N', who I see as Arun Nehru, should be investigated along with Bob Wilson who was the front man for A E Services, Martin Ardbo, who was the Bofors president, and the Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi.

Never has the CBI checked the 'N' angle of the Bofors story. No newspaper has ever interviewed Arun Nehru. Arun Nehru was more involved than anyone else in leaking the Bofors documents to be published. He was the one about whom documents were produced by Chitra Subramaniam, went to The Hindu for publication but suppressed by the editor, N Ram.

Why do you think Arun Nehru involved himself in the Bofors contract?

Arun Nehru, as minister of power, had nothing to do with the ministry of defence, but a great deal to do with Quattrocchi and his Snamprogetti. Many details published about Quattrocchi's involvement relate to the power sector rather than to the defence sector. Thus why was Nehru talking to the Swedish ambassador for this defence deal? Why was he indulging in the deal?

But the Ardbo diary links Quattrocchi with Rajiv Gandhi.

It is curious that Ardbo, the man who did not know who the first prime minister of India was... Ardbo spelt Jawaharlal Nehru's name as the name of the famous Roman emperor who fiddled when Rome was burning. Ardbo combined need with greed and stupidity with cupidity. He was cheated by many. It was common practice among Bofors executives to set up their own scams as part and parcel of their needs. Now everybody is worried over the 'Q' and 'R' in his diary. But doesn't anybody wants to know the role of 'N' in his diary?

Did Rajiv drop Arun Nehru because he suspected his role in the Bofors scandal?

Much more than that. Nehru was a relative of the Gandhi family and close to the country's throne of power. But Rajiv found that he was playing tricks with him and therefore dropped him from the ministry.

But Quattrocchi was a close friend of Rajiv Gandhi and visited him regularly.

Rajiv had a vast circle of friends. I worked with Rajiv all those years. I have checked with the Special Protection Group. Quattrocchi was never received in the Prime Minister's Office and he and his wife were not frequent visitors to the Gandhi residence. Quattrocchi arrived in India years before Rajiv returned from his studies from England. Rajiv and Sonia were a non-political couple for many years and kept a low profile always. But Quattrocchi and Snamprogetti was at that time a prominent worldwide industrial house.

Do you think the Quattrocchi-Rajiv link will be damaging for the Congress party?

Attempts to stretch Bofors-Quattrocchi to Rajiv Gandhi and his family will have to rest on firmer foundations. Let the CBI check out the connection and prove whether Rajiv was involved in the deal.

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