Ram Jethmalani is a senior politician and eminent lawyer.
The Bofors scandal destroyed the clean image Rajiv Gandhi assiduously tried to create for around two years.
Soldiers carry shells near a Bofors FH-77B 155mm artillery gun stationed in Kashmir’s Drass sector in July 1999. REUTERS
ajiv Gandhi's ascent to the Prime Ministerial chair was on the night of his mother's assassination. Not at all auspicious, said many astrologers and laymen who predicted that the stars were inimical and that catastrophes would follow. One did not need a soothsayer to tell us that the stars were foul. We could see it before our very eyes. Delhi was submerged in violence and the worst anti-Sikh riots continued for several days. However, I still tried to give as much benefit of doubt as possible to Rajiv. I hoped and believed that Rajiv's gentle character and his opening salvo against prevalent corruption would master the stars very soon.
I remember I was in Mauritius on a short visit soon after he became Prime Minister. The local press managed to corner me and naturally asked me about our new ruler. I paid the young man a handsome tribute: "He is not spoilt by politics and the company of venal types. He has been quietly leading a happy family life and is enjoying his modest job. No one has heard even an unsavoury rumour about him. He has taken Mr V.P. Singh in his Cabinet who has an excellent reputation for integrity. He has already condemned the prevalent corruption and declared his resolve to terminate it. I think our nation is safe in his hands."
Well, as it turned out, I was proved so wrong so soon. The Lankan misadventure proclaimed the poverty of his politics, and Bofors proclaimed the death of Mr "Clean", the image he had assiduously tried to create for almost two years, which proved to be such a complete hoax. It was on 16 April 1987 that the Swedish radio put on air the Bofors story to the shock of Rajiv and his government and the shame of the Indian nation. My friend Prashant Bhushan in his book Bofors: The selling of a Nation, thus describes the fateful night: "It was past midnight on 16 April 1987 that the phone rang at the house of the Director of Intelligence Bureau, M.K Narayanan. It was the Prime Minister's aide, M.L. Fotedar, on the line. The Prime Minister wanted to see Narayanan right away. Narayanan took the precaution of checking with his control room before he left. Within minutes he reached the Prime Minister's house, and found that the acting Director of Research and Analysis Wing (India's foreign intelligence outfit), R. Govindarajan, had also reached there almost simultaneously. They were immediately ushered into the Prime Minister's office. The Prime Minister was wide awake and quickly asked them what was happening. Govindarajan, who had just returned from out of town the previous night, was taken by surprise. He had no idea what the Prime Minister wanted to know. Poor Govindarajan was soon superseded and his junior A.K. Verma was appointed the Chief of RAW. Narayanan, however, informed the PM that the Swedish radio had that day broadcast a story about Bofors having paid bribes to secure the Howitzer contract from India.
"One doesn't know how long the Prime Minister was closeted with his aides that night, nor what strategy was plotted out. But it was decided that night that an informal denial should be put out since the radio's story was bound to be picked up by some of the newspapers the next morning. The Press Trust of India, one of the two main news agencies, was used for this purpose."
The Swedish radio must have clearly foreseen the storm that their revelations would create in the Indian media and politics. They had arranged to get Rolf Porseryd, their Hong Kong correspondent, to locate himself in India and report the developments to a news hungry and deeply curious world audience.
The newspapers of 17 April 1987 carried banner headlines. The respectable Reuters quoted Swedish Radio as saying that Bofors won the $1.3 billion Howitzer contract by paying bribes to senior Indian politicians and key defence officials through a secret Swiss bank account; four installments totaling 32 million Swedish Kroner were paid into secret Swiss accounts in November and December 1986, that could be traced to senior figures responsible for placing India's military orders.
The Rajiv government almost simultaneously stated the official case, namely, that the "radio story is entirely baseless and mischievous". This denial did not receive the desired display and impact, but it is of the greatest importance and of probative value to one who understands circumstantial evidence of the conduct of an accused after the accusation is publicly made against him. After a secret discussion in the Political Affairs Committee and the Cabinet, the following addition was made to the earlier cryptic denial: "During negotiations with Bofors, the Government had made it clear that the company should not pay any money to any person in connection with the contract... Government policy was not to promote any clandestine or irregular payments in any contract; any breach of this policy would be most severely dealt with... The report of pay-offs is one more link in the chain of denigration and destabilization of our political system... The government is determined to defeat the sinister design with all its might."
I read with dismay this shocking and clumsy fabrication of the defence. The denial was a sure pointer towards the guilt of those making it, and I will in explain why in the next part of this article.