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
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
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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