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January 5, 1998


Sonia's entry into politics puts Bofors back on national agenda

George Iype in New Delhi

The Bofors scandal is likely to follow Sonia Gandhi on the campaign trail as the decade-old kickbacks case snowballs into a major election issue.

The Congress leadership, which is now arranging the campaign schedule for former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's widow, fears the caretaker United Front government has raked up the Bofors case to harm the party's prospects in the general election.

In December, the Indian government requested its British counterpart to name three Channel Island account holders, who are suspected to have received part of the Rs 640 million Bofors kickbacks.

The Left parties and other UF partners are alleged to have forced caretaker Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral to speed up the investigation into the Bofors case in an effort to embarrass the Congress party.

Sources said the Gujral government asked the Central Bureau of Investigation to send a letter rogatory to the British government on December 14 requesting the authorities in London 'to investigate and reveal the names of the three account holders.'

The timing of the government's request is considered significant as the UF regime sat on the matter for 11 months and decided to despatch the letter to the British only after Parliament was dissolved.

In January last year, the Swiss government handed over to the CBI secret bank documents containing the names of the recipients of bribes from the Swedish arms manufacturer A B Bofors.

The CBI's special investigation team, which scrutinised the documents, submitted its final report to the government on April 30.

Subsequently on May 12, the investigating agency sought the home ministry's permission to prosecute two retired bureaucrats -- former defence secretary S K Bhatnagar and Gopi Arora, who served in Rajiv Gandhi's PMO -- besides former Union minister for external affairs Madhavsinh Solanki.

The CBI report also named Rajiv Gandhi as one of the accused, though it failed to prove any charges against him.

A senior CBI officer said the agency has been awaiting government sanction to send the letter rogatory and to prosecute the bureaucrats suspected to be involved in the scandal since May.

"We do not know why the government suddenly decided to pursue the case," the CBI officer told Rediff On The NeT, adding that the Bofors scandal has become ''a case for political compulsions rather than genuine concern to nail the guilty."

UF insiders say the Gujral government's decision to take action on the Bofors matter "stemmed from Sonia's decision to plunge into the Congress campaign." Though Sonia made up her mind to campaign for the party only on December 29, UF leaders were certain she would play a pivotal role in the Congress.

''The Bofors scandal is once again on the national agenda because of Sonia's entry into politics,'' a UF leader told Rediff On The NeT.

Whether the UF combine and the Bharatiya Janata Party will benefit from their anti-Congress campaign on Bofors is yet to be seen, but many believe Sonia will have a tough time on the campaign trail.

Curiously late last month, just before she decided to campaign for the Congress, Sonia reportedly met with Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi in the Far East. The CBI had charged Quattrocchi with receipt of the Bofors kickbacks last February. Sonia, Quattrocchi and his wife Maria are said to be close friends.

The Quattrocchi factor is bound to be highlighted during the election campaign when Sonia is slated to address nearly 100 rallies in a 20-day tour across the country.

Congress leaders on Monday, however, dismissed reports that the howitzer kickbacks scandal would turn out to be a major poll issue.

''The Bofors case has no relevance as far as the Congress is concerned because the CBI report failed to prove any corruption charges against Rajiv Gandhi,'' Sonia loyalist and Congress vice-president Jitendra Prasada told Rediff On The NeT. Raking up the Bofors issue, he said, is ''politically motivated'' and will have no bearing on the Congress's poll prospects.

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