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Commentary/T V R Shenoy

Bofors can blast the Gujral government to smithereens

Rajiv Gandhi Last week I refused to use this column as a diatribe against Laloo Prasad Yadav, choosing to focus on the Indian Bank's mysterious losses. My reasoning was simple: why should I bother when his comrades possess a much more 'colourful' vocabulary?

The logic still holds. This week let us go back to a time before the fodder scam, farther back even than the Indian bank scandal, to the grandmother of them all -- Bofors.

There is every reason to believe that the CBI has collected overwhelming evidence against the late Rajiv Gandhi. It proves that the Congress prime minister manipulated matters to give Bofors the order. It shows that Gandhi repeatedly sabotaged every honest effort to investigate the scandal.

But the Gujral ministry is in an oxygen tent -- and the Congress has its hand on the cylinder. Nevertheless, the truth is beginning to come out in bits and pieces. Here are some parts of this jigsaw.

Did you know that Rajiv Gandhi ensured that the relevant files would not be routed through Sarla Grewal (then principal secretary to the prime minister) just as the deal was being finalised? Instead, the files were handled by Gopi Arora, who wasn't even a full-fledged secretary at the time.

This is highly unusual behaviour. What was it that the prime minister was trying to hide from his own principal secretary? And why did he go down the bureaucracy to find an officer whom he could trust?

But his behaviour after the scandal came into the open was even more peculiar. I would like to cite something that happened in 1988.

Bofors announced that it was ready to come clean. The Swedish firm agreed to send two of its most senior officers to Delhi, who would co-operate fully with investigators.

At this point, Rajiv Gandhi was in Moscow on yet another paid holiday at the taxpayers's expense. (If somebody protests against this description of Gandhi's jet-setting, ask them to name just one benefit of that trip to Moscow.)

Gandhi came back to Delhi barely twenty-four hours before the Bofors team was scheduled to arrive. Once his sycophantic ministers had hung a few marigolds around his neck and smiled for the cameras, Gandhi proceeded to more important work.

Believe it or not, the prime minister called an emergency meeting then and there at the airport! It didn't last very long, but that is probably because Rajiv Gandhi had already made up his mind.

The result of the meeting was a message being sent to Sweden. Its gist was simple: The Bofors team shouldn't set foot in India.

To this day, no Congressman has come up with a reasonable explanation for their beloved leader's mystifying behaviour. Rajiv Gandhi himself was hard put to offer a reason. The best he could do was, "They wouldn't have told the truth!"

Gandhi never deigned to explain how he knew that. But there are only two possibilities.

First, Rajiv Gandhi was an all-knowing god, and no mere mortal! But nobody except a Congressman believes that.

Second, he himself had ordered Bofors to keep quiet, or he knew that somebody else in authority had done so. And that opens up a can of worms, doesn't it?

There are a number of other explained phenomena in the Bofors saga. (Why on earth, for instance, should an Italian be paid off in a deal between a Swedish firm and the Indian government?)

But it is almost certain that the CBI won't dare to accuse Rajiv Gandhi. But the facts are bound to come out when it files charges against others. If, that is, the United Front government 'declassifies' some all-important files...

That really is the question. The Janata Dal rose to prominence thanks to the wave of revulsion caused by Bofors. Please remember that it was as a crusader against corruption that V P Singh made his reputation, and then became prime minister.

Is it possible that the same Janata Dal (and the same Communists 'supporting from outside') will cheerfully bury the Bofors probe?

On the other hand, can the Congress afford to sit back and watch the Nehru-Gandhi name being damaged beyond repair? Especially when the current Congress president is the family's unabashed fan?

Frankly, it is a case of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. The Janata Dal is reeling under charges of corruption against its own leaders. It can't afford to lose any more credibility.

The Congress, on the contrary, can't sit idle. Like it or not, the Gandhi name still counts for something. If it is tarnished, the party loses its trump card.

There are rumours that 10, Janpath had a hand in Kesri's precipitous decision to withdraw support. Can it happen again?

Let me put it this way: Laloo Prasad Yadav can bluster up to a point, but not much more. Bofors, on the other hand, can blast the Gujral ministry to smithereens!

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T V R Shenoy

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