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The Rediff Interview General K Sundarji

'The army and I are being made scapegoats in the Bofors drama'

General K Sundarji Eight years and ten months after he retired as India's chief of army staff, the bogey of the controversial multi-million dollar Bofors kickbacks case haunts the 69-year old General K Sundarji.

When the Rajiv Gandhi government struck the $ 1.3 billion defence deal with A B Bofors of Sweden in 1986, it was General Sundarji who, as he says, "gave professional advice to go in for a gun with an edge."

But his recommendation to buy the Bofors howitzers quickly became the most controversial that any Indian army chief took when allegations of huge kickbacks began pouring in 1987.

"I had nothing to do with the deal. I tried my best to scrap the deal when bribery charges came up. But politicians never listen to armymen," says Sundarji.

When the Swiss authorities handed over secret bank papers connected to the Bofors kickbacks to the Indian government on January 21, the Central Bureau of Investigation sent a letter to General Sundarji asking him to come over to Delhi to testify before the agency on his role in the deal.

General Sundarji will be questioned by the CBI on Monday, February 10. In this exclusive inteview to Rediff On The NeT's George Iype he speaks his mind about the most controversial defence purchase in Indian history.

You have already testified before the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Bofors gun purchase. Do you find any relevance in the CBI grilling you now?

I deposed before the JPC for six long hours. But when I look back today, I feel the JPC members did not ask me any worthy questions. It seemed to me that the JPC members's interest was only in knowing the peripheral aspects of different guns. They asked me about the quality of the Bofors guns and how it was superior to others like the French-made Sofma. But not even a single question was asked on the Bofors deal as such.

Does that mean the Bofors gun deal was stuck without your knowledge?

Definitely, I knew about the deal. But I had nothing to do with the deal. In fact I myself suggested in 1985 that the Bofors gun had an edge over its rivals like the French Sofma on the basis of thorough analysis and our military intelligence reports regarding the mounting capability of Pakistan.

But in 1982, when you were deputy chief of the armed staff, you had recommended the French Sofma gun?

In fact my recommendation was not to pick up the Sofma gun. What I did was to give professional advice on the three major foreign gun manufacturers that the then Indian government was negotiating with -- the Bofors gun, the British tri-nation gun jointly developed by Britain, Germany and Italy, and the French Sofma. All these guns were pretty close to each other on quality, maintainability and utility.

In 1982, talks were going on with the French government for 300-odd pieces of Sofma self-propelled guns. I then suggested the French gun because the army decided that the performance and trials held in India could be the basis of selection. And the Sofma fitted into the category.

Then, why did you change track in 1985 and recommend the Bofors gun?

I never changed track. I have never said that any of these three guns were not up to the standard. But when I took over as army chief in 1995, outgoing General A S Vaidya told me that the government was uncomfortable with the French Sofma. He had already dropped the British tri-nation gun 155mm gun from the list. But this was not the reason which forced me to recommend the Bofors gun.

There were a number of other vital factors which stood in favour of the Bofors. Like the army's preference, the cost of systems, the transfer of techonology, reliability etc. More over, it was found that the Bofors gun had the 'shoot and scoot' capability which Sofma lacked. Thus taking into considerations all these factors, the army top brass suggested that Bofors could be cheapest best buy for the government.

But former Lt General Hridya Nath Kaul told the CBI this week that you exaggerated the Bofors gun's superiority?

I do not find any truth in Lt General Kaul's accusation. I knew that a section of the army pitched for eliminating capable weapons on behalf of the French Sofma gun. I do not know the reason behind this. Probably since there are several equally good guns, preferences might also be different.

Do you think you are being made a scapegoat in the Bofors scandal?

Yes, I feel not only myself, but the Indian army is being made a scapegoat in the entire Bofors drama. As armymen our duty was to recommend high quality weapons. But the real weapons deal is primarily a political decision. Today, we are being blamed for the purchase of the Bofors howitzers.

But do you think, if the then government went in for the French Sofma or the British tri-nation guns, there would have been no bribes and middlemen? I do not think so. There could be many hidden defence deals which involve political pay-offs and we, the armymen are not party to that.

Didn't you tell the Rajiv Gandhi government to scrap the deal when the scandal broke out?

I spent sleepless nights when the scandal broke out in 1987. Soon after the corruption charges began pouring in the foreign and Indian media, I immediately rushed to the office of the then defence minister Arun Singh and told him: "Let us scrap the deal."

I told him it is terrible that the bribery charges have overshadowed the Bofors deal. I insisted that the government should terminate the deal with the Swedish firm as by then only six Bofors gun had arrived in India. We could lose nothing, if we cancel the deal, I requested Singh.

What did Singh tell you?

He told me to write my request on a piece of paper and submit it to the defence secretary, S K Bhatnagar, so that that he can take up the matter with the Prime Minister's Office. I did that and waited for days to get an answer from Singh. But one day Bhatnagar came to my office and told me to redraft the note and change my stand.

What did you do then?

I told Bhatnagar that I could not agree to the suggestion. I then called on Arun Singh and asked why the government was insisting that the deal should go through. He told me that the PMO feels that the cancellation of the Bofors contract would jeopardise India's security. By 1987 April, only six Bofors guns had arrived in India. I tried to convince Singh that the Bofors gun would not affect the country's security and defence preparedness.

Did Arun Singh agree with you?

It seemed to me that Singh agreed with my views. But he told me that "the order from above and obedience from below theory" is the order of the government. Singh soon left the Rajiv Gandhi government in disgust.

Was the 'order from above' from Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's office?

Certainly. The order to continue with the deal came from the Prime Minister's Office. In 1991, Arun Singh told me that the entire cover-up operation was to save just one man's skin.

Was that Rajiv Gandhi?

I do not know whether Rajiv was involved in the scam. That is what the CBI should find out from the secret papers. But definitely Rajiv was definitely in the know of things. He knew who were all involved in the payoffs and probably he wanted to save his friends.

Didn't you have any occasion to meet Rajiv Gandhi and urge him to scrap the deal?

No. The PMO always sent some joint secretary or the defence secretary to talk to me about the deal. I rarely got any occasion to convince Rajiv about the danger of going in for the deal.

What will you tell the CBI now?

I will tell the CBI the whole truth behind the Bofors drama. I believe persons involved in the deal took millions of dollars as bribes and commissions. And when everything is over the political heat is on poor armymen like me. Politicians say "Look, the deal was sanctioned by Sundarji." But the truth will come out before I die. The Bofors gun deal has tarnished the image of the Indian army. Politicians take bribes, but why should the ex-army men be made to suffer?

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