Almost a quarter of a century after it surfaced, the Bofors payoff scandal created a storm yesterday, disrupting both the Houses of the parliament, as the opposition vociferously demanded a fresh probe into the deal that has long haunted the Congress.
The opposition members demanded the government explain how the main accused, Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, was given a safe passage to leave the country in 1993 to avoid arrest, six years after the scandal surfaced in 1987.
Speaking outside the House, BJP and Left leaders demanded a fresh probe and initiation of process for Quattrocchi’s extradition. While BJP’s Jaswant Singh and Arun Jaitley did not take any names, party general secretary and spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad attacked Congress president Sonia Gandhi on the issue.
In Lok Sabha, Jaswant Singh made a passionate appeal for a fresh inquiry and slammed the government for not doing enough to dig the truth behind the alleged scandalous purchase of the 155-mm howitzers in 1986.
“The storm over Bofors has not slowed down... the roar of the gun is still being heard. It is a saga of continuing corruption. I appeal to the government to recognise that,” he said. “For the sake of cleansing this poison from our system, please appoint a judicial commission to probe this. Do it, otherwise we will continue to suffer pain,” he added. As Sonia Gandhi listened with rapt attention, Singh said, “I feel no delight to raise this issue... It was a mistake and we are still paying for it.”
He admitted he “failed to extradite Quattrocchi” when he was external affairs minister. “You are blaming us... But our failure cannot be your success. Whatever the reasons, we want to know why Quattrocchi was taken out of the country by the government. How did this happen? Why was Quattrocchi’s red corner notice withdrawn in the Bofors case?” he questioned.
In the Rajya Sabha, Jaitley said after spending “25 years trying to unearth the truth”, the government was “unable to nail the culprits... despite having conclusive evidences”. Referring to Quattrocchi as “a gentleman whose name started with Q”, he said the Italian had escaped because of “a friendly government and incapable probing agencies”.
Prasad said the issue was directly related to Sonia Gandhi’s reputation. “I understand the compulsion and limits of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he was just a civil servant when the scam took place... Sonia Gandhi ji... the decision in this case will be the benchmark by which the nation will judge you,” Prasad said.
Basudeb Acharia of the CPI(M) also demanded a fresh probe and said the issue would continue to haunt India till Quattrocchi was brought to justice.
Congress’ Sanjay Nirupam strongly objected to the opposition raising the issue and asked the BJP to “first apologise to the nation for tarnishing the image of the late Rajiv Gandhi” for naming him in the scandal all these years.
The functioning of parliament is likely to be peaceful today with the main opposition BJP deciding not to take up the issue.
The issue of Bofors scam rose to haunt the Congress-led government again as former Swedish police chief Sten Lindstrom, the original whistleblower, disclosed that the late Rajiv Gandhi “watched the massive cover-up” and the guilty party, Quattrocchi, got away.