Italian accountant Ottavio Quattrocchi who was paid a bribe of $7.2 million in the 1986 Bofors-India gun deal passed away last weekend. He was no ordinary commission agent operating in India. He was a gravy train close to the Gandhi family. It was common knowledge in New Delhi from the 70s that anyone who was invited to the Quattrocchi home had to wade through strategically placed photos of the Gandhi family. If there was a major negotiation, Q was the signore in the know.
Every Indian politician and political wannabe who met me to “discuss” Bofors (1989 to 2013) cursed Q behind his back and shuddered in his presence. Those who did not shiver like a leaf when his name was mentioned claimed they were using the Q-stick to keep Sonia Gandhi out of power after her husband and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed. So, everybody was in the Q game for a personal interest camouflaged as national interest. Everyone thought my political encounter with the movers and shakers of India was because of Bofors.
Bofors was not about Q or R. Bofors was about the self-respect of a nation. It was about institutions in a democracy, the world’s largest. It was about Indians defending India in extreme weather conditions while India slept.
The story is simple. India bought field howitzers from Sweden in 1986 for $1.2 billion dollars. The guns were state of the art, the price competitive. An additional contract ensured that we would manufacture the guns indigenously. Q (as leaked Bofors documents showed) walked into the deal at the 11th hour, asked for a 3% commission payable only when the deal was concluded by a date announced by him through his front company A.E. Services. He walked away a happy man, almost. So why would a Swedish armaments company pay an Italian in India working for Snamprogetti, an engineering arm of the Italian oil and gas firm Eni, for field howitzers?
This is what Amitabha Pande (former joint secretary in-charge of the Bofors contract) posted on Facebook after Q transited.
Q, like Warren Anderson of Union Carbide, was allowed to bolt out of India. It was after I had filed my report linking him directly to the Bofors payments with evidence from Switzerland and Sweden and before the story appeared in print. Q had fled from a major Indian airport because Indians allowed Q to bolt, knowing well that he had cheated Indians. It was in a manner similar to how India had allowed Anderson safe passage, knowing well that he had blood on his hands after the Bhopal gas tragedy.
Packing the punch of Berlusconi and Raja math (in 21st century Italian and Indian political lingo), Q turned entire generations of Indian politicians and bureaucrats and expert lawyers and political commentators into doormats. He was the parrot-green elephant with a yellow trunk and bells on his two hind-feet in a pink room. Andy Warhol at the Thyagaraja music festival in Tanjore (Tamil Nadu) singing Yantaro Mahanubhava, if that helps.
In addition to making a lot of money talking and arguing about him, people individually became prime ministers, governors, ambassadors and collectively let Indian down as they pretended to chase the Sicily-born Q from port to port. Q laughed all the way to the bank, something he had been doing in India for a long time.
Bribes to Q explain why when Swedish state radio reported on July 16, 1986 that Bofors had bribed Indians and others to take clinch the arms deal, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi informed the Lok Sabha at the first opportunity that neither he, nor his family nor his friends had anything to do with the deal.
It is because of who Q was that India has dithered on Bofors for 27 years.
It is because of Q’s importance that in 2009 Indian law minister Hansraj Bharadwaj unblocked Q’s accounts in London so that he could retrieve his bribe – the tax on which was paid by the Indian taxpayer.
It is because of who Q was that the Bofors case was closed in 2011 for want of evidence. It is because of who Q was that Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy said India should apologise to him for hounding an innocent man. A few months later the income-tax department sent him a bill for the bribes.
It is because of who Q was that George Fernandes, India’s Minister of Defence during the NDA regime, told me that he had been told by National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra “not to touch the Bofors file” – because of instructions from former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and deputy Prime Minister LK Advani. It is no secret that Vaypayee and Advani were very accommodating about Q and his friends in New Delhi. How else can one explain why the NDA government, in power from 1998 to 2004, couldn’t arrest Q?
It is because of who Q was that every institution in India from the parliament to the judiciary to the executive was tarred with the same brush.
It was because of who Q was that every head of India’s premier investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) developed half a spine after retirement.
It was because of Q that the CBI sleuths during their several trips to Sweden to get at the truth did not meet key Swedish investigators. .
It was on the Q factor that every ambassador in Switzerland, Sweden and Italy was evaluated for their performance. One permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland (PR) who was in weekly contact with Brajesh Mishra, lied to the Swiss about his interest in following the Bofors case. The official contact between India and Switzerland is through Bern, the Swiss capital. He had no business interfering in bilateral matters between two states. It is because of Q that none of this is in the public domain.
1997. Such was the detail of the money trail in the 350-odd leaked documents that the world’s best lawyers in the world’s toughest courts could not save the guilty among whom was Q. Such was the enormity and grandeur of the judgment in favour of India that Switzerland modified its laws for mutual assistance in criminal matters to third countries. Calling the decision “spectacular” as it had helped them plug holes in their own system, Swiss officials and lawmakers welcomed the Bofors-India ruling as proof that their country was not a haven for tainted money. Criminals could no longer delay or deny access to secret bank accounts. They could appeal only once at the federal level instead of numerous cantonal procedures and delays. The Marcos case from the Philippines and the Bofors case from India had rocked Switzerland in the 80s. The Marcos money was held under false names and codes and getting to the exact bank account numbers was not easy. Q was not bothered with such details – he was a blink away from the money. He knew he could buck India.
So in 1997, when I stood next to the Indian ambassador to Switzerland, KP Balakrishnan, (image given below) I had a pretty good idea about what was in the sealed box of secret documents from Swiss banks to India. Over 10 years of my life (1986-1997) running between Switzerland and Sweden investigating the case, six of which was sitting outside courts in various parts of Switzerland finally had a meaning.
Neither the Swiss courts nor the Swedish investigators cared who Q was. For them, he was the political payment, the entity that comes in when all the numbers are on the table and walks away with a portion of the loot without any questions. For them, he was involved in a major criminal act against the government of India.
July 13, 2013. The phone rang off the hook. Somebody called Q had died, so could they get a byte? It was not an important story, they all said, since it was breaking on a weekend and the editors and anchors were away. So, who wanted to speak to me? A junior anchor, one of them said. Like a junior engineer in Bhopal, I thought.
One television channel wanted to record my reaction before Q’s death was confirmed. Upon prodding, one of them was honest enough to say they had no idea why they were calling me except that there was this database on Bofors with my number. Another said they would connect with me live at 1 am India time without disclosing my location.
To all those who want to save India from corruption, I ask – my number is on a data base, but where are the documents India received in a sealed box from Switzerland?.
RIP Q. You knew what you were doing. And you did it without fear and with favour.
You can watch Chitra Subramaniam Duella’s interview on why India still doesn’t know the truth about Bofors. http://www.newslaundry.com/2012/05/chitra-the-story-behind-bofors/