The Bofors ghost returned to haunt the Congress yesterday with former Swedish police chief Sten Lindstrom giving a clean chit to the late Rajiv Gandhi in the payoff scandal but also saying that he just “watched the massive cover-up” and the guilty, Italian Ottavio Quattrocchi, got away.
The sensational disclosures by the original whistleblower of the bribery scam of the late 1980s gave fresh ammunition to the BJP and the Left with both demanding an explanation from the government. The BJP also decided to pin the government down in parliament.
Then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and several others were accused of receiving kickbacks from AB Bofors for winning a bid to supply India 155 mm field howitzers.
Yesterday, the issue was resurrected as in an interview to a website, Lindstrom said there was no evidence to show that Gandhi had taken a bribe in the Rs 1,500 crore gun deal. “But he watched the massive cover-up in India and Sweden and did nothing. Many Indian institutions were tarred, innocent people were punished while the guilty got away,” he said.
The evidence against Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi “was conclusive”, he said, adding, “Nobody in Sweden or Switzerland was allowed to interrogate him.” Lindstrom also said that the case against actor and then Congress MP Amitabh Bachchan and his family was planted in Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter by Indian investigators.
In another damning revelation, Lindstrom said they had barely met Indian investigators. “Can you imagine a situation where no one from India met the real investigators of the gun deal?” he asked.
The interview gave the opposition the leverage it was looking for against the Congress-led UPA regime.
The BJP again alleged that Quattrocchi was close to the Gandhi family and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and sought the government’s apology for letting him go free.
“The entire government of late Rajiv Gandhi was out to secure Ottavio Quattrocchi. What was his link with the government and with the Gandhi family that the entire government was there to bail him out... it is a serious matter,” said BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad.
“The role of Quattrocchi should be probed by an independent agency, and so should be the role of the CBI officials who said there was no evidence against him,” said Prasad.
The Communist Party of India (CPI) agreed. “The government and the CBI cannot ignore this revelation. They have to come forward with a response on how Quattrocchi could go scot-free or could have a safe passage from India,” said CPI leader D Raja.
The Congress retorted that parties who had misled the nation on the issue should apologise instead.
Accusing the opposition of making “wild allegations” against Gandhi, union Law Minister Salman Khurshid said, “It is a matter of regret that without having any proof, such serious charges were levelled. The same people are not ready to feel sorry even today. They should apologise before the public.” He added that it was a closed case and there was no need to reopen it.
The Bachchans said they had been vindicated. “We knew the truth 25 years back but justice takes its own time and our stand has been vindicated,” said Rajya Sabha MP Jaya Bachchan.
While Amitabh Bachchan, who was an MP at the time said the accusations had led to years of “anguish of petulant blame”. “No one shall be able to understand or even remotely fathom, the hours and days and months and years of the anguish of petulant blame, that I had to go through. But will it really interest another? No it shall not,” Bachchan wrote on his blog.
April 16, 1987: Swedish Radio claims Bofors paid kickbacks to top Indian politicians to secure the deal
March 24, 1986: A $15 bn contract between the Indian government and Swedish arms company AB Bofors is signed for the supply of 155 mm Howitzer field guns
July 30, 1993: Italian businessman Quattrocchi leaves India to avoid arrest
Jan 30, 1997: CBI sets up special investigation team for the case
Feb 4, 2004: Delhi HC clears Rajiv Gandhi of involvement in the scandal
March 4, 2011: A Delhi court allows the CBI to drop all charges against Quattrochhi and to close the case
April 24, 2012: Former Swedish police chief Sten Lindstrom reveals he was the Deep Throat. He says there’s no evidence of Rajiv Gandhi or Amitabh Bachchan’s involvement in the scam