How Bofors scam was busted — and then buried

[Book excerpt] What we learnt early on in our investigation was that the documents in hand or in the pipeline were vital to the story, but the story should not get lost in the web of complexity that surrounded the transactions.

 |   Long-form |   11-07-2017
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A corrupt state of things is very frequently represented as an "abuse"; it is taken for granted that the foundation was good — the system, the institution itself is faultless — but that...the arbitrary volition of men has made use of that which in itself was good to further its own selfish ends, and that all that is required to be done is to remove these adventitious elements. On this showing the institute in question escapes obloquy, and the evil that disfigures it appears something foreign to it… A great and general corruption...is quite another thing.

— Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History, 1820s

I came upon grand corruption in the flesh during The Hindu’s protracted investigation of the Bofors howitzer deal scandal in the late 1980s. The origins of the term, which is now widely used in international anti-corruption discourse, go back to Hegel’s famous characterisation of the state of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church as "a great and general corruption".

Bofors, as I have already noted, is independent India’s defining grand corruption scandal. Given the complexities of Indian politics, its political and social impact is extremely hard to measure, but there can be little doubt that it contributed significantly to the downfall of Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress party in the November 1989 Lok Sabha election.

An April 16, 1987 broadcast by a reporter, Magnus Nilsson, on Dagens Eko, the news arm of Swedish public radio, had started it all:

At Bofors, the work with the big Indian order began already in the late 1970s and from then on till the contract was signed in March last year the company was aided by an Indian agent who helped Bofors with local contacts and support within the Indian military authorities, within the bureaucracy, and within Prime Minister [Rajiv] Gandhi’s Congress Party. In November last year Bofors began paying remunerations to the Indian contacts who had helped the company, but the money was not directly sent to India. Instead it was sent to secret bank accounts in Suisse Bank in Geneva...

bof-rajiv_071117051659.jpgThere can be little doubt the Bofors investigation contributed significantly to the downfall of Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress party in the November 1989 Lok Sabha election. Photo: India Today

The Dagens Eko news broadcast, which was relayed by international news agencies, went on to specify that three payments totalling 29.5 million Swedish kroner were made in mid-November 1986 and a fourth payment of 2.5 million kroner was made in December. Mentioning that the code name for the transactions was "Lotus" and that these 1986 payments were "only part of the total remuneration to the Indian contacts", the broadcast quoted unnamed sources within Bofors AB as saying that the company would end up paying "commission...of a couple of hundred million kroner in all... in connection with the Indian deal". Nilsson concluded his broadcast on a sharpedged note that sent shock waves through political India:

How large a part of this money is remuneration for the Indian agent’s work for Bofors and how much simply is pure bribes is uncertain, but that the main part of this money has been passed on as pure bribes is confirmed by persons with very clear insight into how the deal between Bofors and India was handled.

The broad denials issued by the Indian government and the studied denials, which on scrutiny turned out to be non-denials, put out by Bofors AB carried no credibility, especially in India. A week after the Dagens Eko broadcast, Dagens Nyheter published two reports alleging that the Hindujas had received a commission from the company.

While GP Hinduja dismissed the reports as totally untrue, the Bofors statement that no money had been paid to the Hindujas "to win the contract" appeared to contradict him, by implying that money had been paid for something else, which was anyone’s guess at that point.

It is not clear why, after this promising start, the Swedish news media went low-key, if not virtually silent, on the payoffs in the Bofors-India howitzer deal. But whatever be the explanation, we in The Hindu knew that a window had opened for us. From now on, it would have to be the Indian press in determined, dogged, and, where required, aggressive pursuit of the truth behind the secret payments into the Swiss bank accounts that Nilsson had originally reported.

Along with the Indian Express, then edited by Arun Shourie, we were quick off the mark, sensing a rare investigative journalistic opportunity given the context — social-democratic Sweden’s much-vaunted commitment to transparency and its reputation for not being able to hide anything for too long, and the highly favourable socio-political climate created in India by VP Singh’s revolt. But for months it seemed we were in a frustrating race to get to the truth, with little to show for our exertions.

When we cast about, in India and in Europe, for relevant information and background on the howitzer deal and the alleged payoffs, we knew that corruption, influence-peddling, and various forms of law-breaking were pervasive in the international arms trade.

The challenge was to break through the walls of secrecy that had been fortified all around following some embarrassing whistleblower leaks. We had a general idea that arms exports by Swedish companies violating the law or circumventing the prohibitions on weapons sales to belligerents, and corrupt deals involving bribes and kickbacks concealed as "commissions" to middlemen and foreign officials were becoming a hot topic in Sweden. But in the pre-Internet era and given the fact that most of the relevant material was in Swedish, we had very little information on the specifics of these unsavoury business transactions.

A recently declassified CIA paper, dated March 4, 1988, on "Sweden’s Bofors Arms Scandal" fills in the necessary background, which would have been helpful in providing perspective and context to our investigation into the Bofors-India howitzer deal had we had access to this information at the time.

m777-story_647_05181_071117051918.jpgA 1998 CIA paper alleged bribing of Indian middlemen and officials in connection with India’s $1.5 billion purchase of 155mm howitzers. Photo: India Today

The transactions mentioned in the sanitised document include Bofors AB’s sale of more than 300 RBS-70 missile systems to Bahrain and Dubai via Singapore in 1979; its sale of twenty-two antiaircraft guns to Thailand via Singapore in 1985; its sale of ammunition to Oman via Italy; its alleged sale of RBS-70 missile systems to Iran via Singapore; its alleged bribing of Indian middlemen and officials in connection with India’s $1.5 billion purchase of 155mm howitzers; its alleged bribery of an official in Singapore in connection with arms sales to other countries; its alleged sale of naval ordnance to Taiwan; its alleged sale of explosives to the German Democratic Republic via Austria; Nobel Kemi AB’s sale of 2,139 metric tonnes of munitions to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Burma via Austria, the GDR, Italy, and Yugoslavia, with about two-thirds of these munitions going to Iran; and Karl-Erik Schmitz, a private Swedish businessman, acting as an international broker for arms sales, including sales of weapons produced by Sweden, to proscribed countries.

The document lists the various investigations, enquiries, reviews, and prosecutions launched in the cases. It notes that in January 1987, Carl-Fredrik Algernon, Inspector General of Military Equipment, was found dead under distressing circumstances in Stockholm half an hour after meeting Anders Carlberg, head of Bofors AB’s parent company, Nobel Industries; Algernon had been "struck by a subway train" in a probable case of suicide.

indiatodaycovermay15_071117051957.jpgIndia Today cover from May 1987.

"Swedish arms manufacturers experiencing financial difficulties in the late 1970s and early 1980s", the CIA paper observes, "determined they needed to sell arms to proscribed countries in order to remain financially viable. Government officials acquiesced… The lingering Bofors AB and Nobel Kemi AB arms scandals, which first came to light in 1984, owe to the failure of Sweden’s private and public sector leaders to observe their own rules governing arms exports in an apparent effort to bolster the domestic arms industry... Numerous investigations were initiated to examine the complex web of bribery and arms diversions but, despite an admission from a key industry executive only two individuals have been charged with violating Swedish law: a Nobel Kemi manager and a private arms trader".

India was not a proscribed country for Swedish arms sales. But it was clear that for political reasons the Social Democratic government of Ingvar Carlsson was intent on damage limitation and cover-up in the howitzer deal; and most opposition politicians, for their own reasons, closed ranks behind the government. The official investigation into the alleged Bofors bribes to Indian officials was quickly called off. Even before Nilsson’s explosive broadcast, Martin Ardbo, the managing director of Bofors AB between 1982 and 1987, had lost his job for transgressions unrelated to India. Subsequently, in December 1989, he and some other former Bofors executives were found guilty of serious offences, including "gross smuggling", but got away lightly, escaping prison as well as fines.

When strenuous damage limitation and cover-up efforts were underway in India and Sweden, a tip came to us from unexpected quarters.

political-corruption_071117052154.jpgWhy Scams are Here to Stay: Understanding Political Corruption in India; N Ram; Aleph Book Company

During the course of an informal conversation at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in 1988, R Venkataraman, President of India who had held various key ministerial portfolios, including defence, and was known for his integrity, said to me, "Don’t you know that the standard rate of commission in major defence deals is 6 per cent?" This was valuable background information, given the authoritative source. We knew by then that the percentage-based kickbacks, disguised as commissions, that Bofors AB was contracted to pay for winning the India howitzer deal considerably exceeded this standard rate.

As the separate investigations by The Hindu and the Indian Express progressed, gathering pace but taking different directions, we realised two things. Competitive pressure, instead of putting us at risk of cutting corners, had the effect of focusing our investigative efforts, pushing us to verify and verify again every detail we learnt. It also helped us understand that competing newspapers and journalists could cooperate with, and reinforce and reassure, each other in certain areas of the investigation.

Behind The Hindu’s investigation

The Hindu’s investigation was not the work of any one star journalist but a collective enterprise, which I happened to lead and do much of the writing for; and for more than eighteen months from April 1988, when The Hindu’s Geneva stringer, Chitra Subramaniam, struck gold in Stockholm, until October 1989, when we published the withheld secret part of the Swedish National Audit Bureau’s findings, The Hindu owned the investigation — thanks to its exclusive continuing relationship with the confidential source Chitra had found and had persuaded to cooperate with us.

A quarter century after The Hindu got lucky in Stockholm, our confidential source, who had long retired by then, went on record to reveal that he was Sten Lindstrom, an experienced police officer with strong views on right and wrong. As head of the investigation department of the Swedish National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), he had personally investigated the Bofors-India payoffs and had had all the incriminating papers seized. He described this discovery as an "accident":

We were conducting several search and seize operations in the premises of Bofors and their executives. I have some experience in this area, so I asked my team to take everything they could find. In the pile were one set of documents to Swiss banks with instructions that the name of the recipient should be blocked out. An accountant doing his job asked why anonymity was necessary since the payments were legal. Bofors was unable to explain and then we found more and more documents leading to India.

Lindstrom was our principal and key source through the investigation. He explained that he had leaked the Bofors-India documents to The Hindu because, as a Swedish citizen "raised in the best traditions of social democracy", he had been morally outraged and shocked by "the scale of political involvement in Sweden breaking all rules including those we set for ourselves".

During our interaction on Bofors, he asked for nothing more than fair, accurate, and contextualized use of the material he was providing and I can confirm that no material benefits or rewards of any kind were asked for or given. The investigation was hugely dependent on the photocopies of the documents he was passing on to us. However, our confidential source was not willing to part with everything he had in one go. He would leak the documents only in phased instalments over a period of eighteen months, so it was a process of negotiating with him for more and waiting patiently for the next lot. But he was good enough to give us a general idea of what was to come in the next round.

At our newspaper’s headquarters in Chennai, we were sensitive to our confidential source’s position and the personal risks he was taking. At one point, we sensed that the Indian government had surmised, perhaps even arrived at the conclusion through a process of elimination, that Lindstrom was the leaker. But we knew that the government could not go public with its suspicions for a simple reason: publicly naming the head of the investigation, the senior police officer who had ordered the incriminating documents to be seized, as the leaker would only add to its woes by authenticating the documents leaked in the eyes of the public. We were deeply concerned when we heard that a complaint had been made about the leaks and an enquiry was being conducted by the Swedish authorities against our confidential source; and we were relieved when the enquiry apparently found no evidence of wrongdoing.

But Lindstrom was not our only source. During our long-drawn-out investigation, we met and talked with the Hinduja brothers, two of whom had figured in the documents leaked to The Hindu.

We talked to Win Chadha, the original Bofors agent mentioned by Nilsson in the Dagens Eko broadcast; he had called me long distance to protest his innocence and to pressure us to call off the hunt. We talked to Myles Stott, a fiduciary who handled the financial affairs of AE Services Limited, a shell company to which Bofors AB had made a $7.34 million payoff in September 1986. We searched the companies registry in the UK for information and clues relating to the shell companies and their directors.

We talked to various sources about the business dealings of Ottavio Quattrocchi, the "Q" of the Ardbo diary who had close relations with the Rajiv Gandhi family; it turned out that the Snamprogetti representative in India was the mover behind the Bofors payments to AE Services Limited.

We also talked to confidential political sources within the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) who had been given access to a mass of official documentation related to the decision-making on the choice of howitzer and confidential talks with Bofors representatives; one JPC member, Aladi Aruna of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), who had turned hostile to the government, his party’s ally, and had attached a note of dissent to the JPC’s cover-up report, gave us invaluable information that led to an investigative breakthrough.

We interviewed Swedish Prime Minister Carlsson on what he knew about the Bofors payoffs and why his government was not doing more to get at the truth. During the eighteen months when The Hindu owned the investigation, I had confidential one-on-one meetings on Bofors with CBI Director Mohan Katre, Defence Minister KC Pant, Arun Nehru, who had once been close to Rajiv Gandhi but had turned against him, officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, and, finally, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi himself, all at their request.

I must add that during this period a few other publications in Sweden and India, notably India Today, contributed some new information and insights that helped fill in some gaps and make better sense of a complex story.

Know your Bofors

The Bofors scandal revolved around the Rajiv Gandhi government’s decision to purchase from the Swedish arms manufacturing company an advanced 155mm howitzer system. The transaction was valued at SEK 8.41 billion (Rs 1,437.72 crore or $1.4 billion at the prevailing exchange rate). It turned out that unacknowledged payments aggregating Rs 64 crore or US$ 50 million — termed "commissions" and calculated on a percentage basis — had been paid by Bofors into secret Swiss bank accounts after the contract was won on March 24, 1986.

The payoffs were in violation of the formal assurances sought and obtained from Bofors by the government of India. The evidentiary basis for the investigation was the documentation leaked to The Hindu by the confidential source, the key documents being the Swiss bank papers, transaction documents, secret contracts, and a diary and notes kept by Ardbo, which had been seized by the Swedish police.

What we learnt early on in our investigation was that the documents in hand or in the pipeline were vital to the story, but the story should not get lost in the web of complexity that surrounded the transactions. There were also false trails, leading to persons who were in no way involved in the scandal. For example, a leading lawyer, going by unrelated events and misleading proximities, wrongly accused Amitabh Bachchan of involvement in Bofors and this was prominently reported in a section of the press. But our investigation showed that this was completely baseless and we had no hesitation in making this clear.

But above all, we learnt that making sense of the documents, fitting them in a larger frame that was slowly taking shape, was what the Bofors investigation was about. No journalistic investigation would be complete and there would always be gaps to be filled that we could not fill.

Let me digress here on the role of documents in investigation. It is true that documents are often the best evidence and, for the informed public, they can be clinching proof of corruption or abuse of power or other wrongdoing.

The massive troves of confidential, secret, and hidden documents released, over the past decade, by WikiLeaks, and the game-changing documented disclosures by Edward Snowden on global surveillance by the US National Security Agency underline this point.

However, this caution issued against document fetishism by Kim Philby, one of modern history’s great practitioners of ideologically inspired espionage, must be heeded: "Just because a document is a document, it has a glamour which tempts the reader to give it more weight than it deserves... documentary intelligence, to be really valuable, must come in a steady stream, embellished with an awful lot of explanatory annotation. An hour’s serious discussion with a trustworthy informant is often more valuable than any number of original documents. Of course, it is best to have both."

As more and more details, documented and otherwise, emerged in our investigation, we needed to zoom out to get a historical perspective, and then the Bofors-India corruption story seemed to come alive. Now it could be understood in terms of five modes of action.

The first was the decision-making on the choice of howitzer and the motive for the crime clearly lay here. The second mode comprised the arrangements for the payoffs. The third was the cover-up and crisis management. The fourth was the journalistic investigation and exposé. The fifth was the CBI’s long-delayed, on-and-off criminal investigation, assisted by the Swiss Federal Police and the Swiss courts, and prosecution before Judge Ajit Bharihoke’s Special Court for CBI cases.

What was the hard information we had on decisionmaking on the howitzer? The official and commercial documents in hand revealed that from 1980 the Government of India was looking out for a state-of-theart 155mm howitzer system to meet defence operational requirements that were said to be urgent.

The competition was shortlisted in December 1982 to M/s Sofma of France, M/s AB Bofors of Sweden, M/s International Military Services of the United Kingdom, and M/s Voest Alpine of Austria. In November 1985, the Government of India’s choice, based on advice from Army Headquarters and a recommendation by the Negotiating Committee, narrowed down to Sofma and Bofors.

The official record also showed that between October 1982 and February 1986, the Indian Army carried out no fewer than seven evaluations of the relative merits of the howitzer systems offered by the shortlisted bidders. General A. S. Vaidya was army chief for most of this period, from 31 July 1983 to 31 January 1986. In the first six evaluations, the Sofma 155mm TR howitzer, with its extended range, was decisively preferred to the Bofors gun. Financial considerations also gave the French manufacturer what seemed to be an unbeatable lead.

However, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and a small group of ministers and officials who knew his thinking had made up their minds to award the contract to the Swedish arms manufacturer. Since they knew no way to make army headquarters under General Vaidya budge from its preference for the French gun, they patiently waited it out, notwithstanding the urgency of the strategic military requirements.

When General Vaidya’s retirement neared and even before General K Sundarji formally took over as army chief, the Prime Minister and his confidants moved swiftly to clinch the deal they wanted. With army headquarters reversing in February 1986 a succession of professional judgements that had gone against Bofors, the stages of final decision-making were telescoped and rushed through, resulting in the formalisation of the choice of Bofors on March 24, 1986. Subsequently, the CBI charge sheet revealed that after the Negotiating Committee recommended, on March 12, that a Letter of Intent be issued to Bofors, the file was approved by five officials and three ministers on a single day, March 13, and was finally approved by Rajiv Gandhi on March 14.

The decision-making mode could now be related to the payments mode, that is, the contracted arrangements for secret payments into the Swiss bank accounts. We could see that these two modes constituted a cohesive set, belonging to the past, and the government could do nothing about this. The other three modes of action — the cover-up and crisis management, the journalistic investigation, and the CBI’s criminal investigation and prosecution, which were all continuing — constituted another, less cohesive set.

It can be seen from this that investigative journalism is not just about technique, documentation, and data analysis, although these are essential requirements for a complex investigation. They must be consciously understood to be a means to an end, a coherent, nuanced, compelling story that would make sense to an informed public, raise awareness of the main issues, perhaps serve as a catalyst for progressive change or reform, and fully justify the time, effort, and resources invested in the investigation.

"But what good came of it at last?"

Little Peterkin’s meaningful question to Old Kaspar in Robert Southey’s anti-war poem is worth asking about the investigation into the Bofors corruption scandal.

The answer must necessarily be complex, nuanced, and inconclusive. There is little doubt that Bofors and The Hindu’s investigation and exposé, which was triggered by the Dagens Eko broadcast of April 16, 1987, made a big political impact, the kind of impact that no single corruption case has made in India before and after Bofors.

Investigative journalism played the lead role in bringing the truth to light but it would be a mistake to think that the impact was the contribution of journalism alone. It was the political opposition spearheaded by VP Singh that took the work of journalism far and wide, deep into society and the polity, and developed it into a major election campaign theme.

Let me digress a little here on investigative journalism and the question of impact. Every journalist working determinedly to unearth the truth desires impact. The success of investigative journalism is often judged by whether it is able to generate change in the desired direction. But there are obvious problems with applying this criterion.

For one thing, it exaggerates the role the news media play, assigning to them a power to shape the larger external environment that they clearly do not have. Secondly, the impact of journalism on complex socio-economic and political realities is extremely hard to measure. Even in the case of the most celebrated journalistic investigation of the last fifty years, Watergate, the jury is still out on whether it made any real difference to politics in the United States and it would be an exaggeration to say that "it brought down a President".

One part of the answer to little Peterkin’s question, as it applies to Bofors, is that what prevailed at the bar of public opinion and politics failed and eventually collapsed at the bar of public prosecution.

The cover-up strategy adopted by the Indian and Swedish governments between 1987 and 1989 meant that the investigators faced an uphill task after a criminal case was registered by the CBI in January 1990, nearly three years after Dagens Eko broadcast the allegations.

Evidence that could have been collected from Bofors AB and the Swedish investigators had a case been registered by an independent-minded CBI in April 1987, or at least after The Hindu published the first set of documents in April 1988, was irremediably lost. Moreover, the cover-up and damage limitation efforts were resumed when the Congress, headed by PV Narasimha Rao, formed a minority government in 1991, and once again after a rejuvenated Congress returned to power at the head of a new coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, in 2004.

As the Bofors corruption case slowly made its way through the courts and the administrative-bureaucratic processes in India and Switzerland, the main accused, Rajiv Gandhi, was assassinated (on 21 May 1991, halfway through the 10th Lok Sabha election).

A decade later, two other key accused, SK Bhatnagar, who had been defence secretary at the time of the conclusion of the Bofors howitzer deal, and Win Chadha, the Bofors agent, were dead. In July 1993, the Swiss federal court ruled that India was entitled to receive Swiss bank documents relevant to the case. Two weeks later, Quattrocchi, who was deeply implicated in the scandal, was allowed by the Narasimha Rao government to flee India, never to return.

In January 1997, Swiss bank documents running to more than 500 pages were released to India. In February 1997, after the CBI had formed a special investigation team for the case, letters rogatory were sent to Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates seeking the arrest of Quattrocchi and Chadha.

In July 1999, during the Kargil conflict with Pakistan a decade after the VP Singh government had barred Bofors from entering into any defence contract with India, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government reversed the decision on national security grounds. By all accounts the 155mm Bofors howitzer performed effectively in the conflict.

On October 22, 1999, the CBI filed the first charge sheet in the case against Chadha, Quattrocchi, Bhatnagar, Ardbo and Bofors AB; Rajiv Gandhi figured in the charge sheet as "an accused not sent for trial" because the case against him had abated with his death. Thereafter, the trial court issued arrest warrants against Quattrocchi and summons to the four other accused.

With the CBI failing in its efforts to have the Italian businessman extradited from Malaysia, and with Ardbo out of the law’s reach, only Chadha, who returned to India in March 2000, and Bhatnagar, who was ill with terminal cancer, seemed to be candidates for trial at this point.

Then in October 2000, the CBI filed a supplementary charge sheet against SP Hinduja, GP Hinduja, and PP Hinduja; and in November 2002, the trial court ordered the framing of charges in the Bofors payoff case against the three brothers, after rejecting their plea for discharge from the case. In July 2003, the UK acceded to India’s request to freeze Quattrocchi’s bank accounts; and in January 2004, the Swiss authorities agreed to consider the CBI’s request for providing Quattrocchi’s bank details.

It seemed that there was going to be a breakthrough in the legal case nearly seventeen years after the allegations of corruption had first surfaced. But this was not to be and a series of judicial and political reverses followed.

Out of the blue, on February 4, 2004, the Delhi High Court quashed the charges under the Prevention of Corruption Act against the three Hinduja brothers, holding that there was no evidence whatsoever to support the allegation that they had bribed Prime Minister Gandhi or Defence Secretary Bhatnagar for winning the Bofors howitzer contract.

With this blow, the Bofors corruption case was virtually dead, although the court upheld the trial court’s decision to frame charges of cheating and corruption against the three Hinduja brothers and also to frame charges of fabrication of documents against Bofors AB. These excerpts from Justice JD Kapoor’s 115-page order are instructive: they show how unpredictable the Indian judiciary can be when it comes to assessing evidence and applying the rules of evidence to a case:

The facts of the case itself show that so far as the public servants — Rajiv Gandhi and SK Bhatnagar — are concerned, 16 years of investigation by a premier agency of the country — the Central Bureau of Investigation — could not unearth a scintilla of evidence against them for having accepted bribe/illegal gratification in awarding the contract in favour of A. B. Bofors… All efforts by the CBI ended in a fiasco as they could not lay hand upon any secret or known account of these public servants where the alleged money might have found its abode either in Swiss banks or any other bank or vault.

Charges for the offences punishable under Sections 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Section 5 (2) read with Section 5 (1) (d) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1947, and Section 165A (public servant obtaining valuable thing, without consideration, from a person concerned in any proceeding or business transacted by such public servant) read with 161 (accepting gratification other than legal remuneration) against the petitioners for having entered into a criminal conspiracy with the public servants to cheat the Government of India and having abetted the public servants to commit criminal conduct by abusing their official position and taken illegal gratification for awarding the contract are quashed.

The final judicial blow came on May 31, 2005 when the Delhi High Court cleared the three Hinduja brothers as well as Bofors AB of the remaining charges framed under the February 4, 2004 order of the High Court. Justice RS Sodhi’s order quashing the charges was essentially on the ground that the CBI could not satisfy the court that the copies of the documents it had produced to substantiate the charges, including the documents it had obtained from me, were admissible as evidence under the Evidence Act. Like Justice Kapoor, Justice Sodhi could not resist the temptation to chastise the CBI but he went further and registered sympathy for the accused, whom he evidently regarded as innocent victims:

Before parting, I must express my disapproval at the investigation that went on for 14 years and I was given to understand that it cost the Exchequer nearly rupees 250 crores. During the investigation a huge bubble was created with the aid of the media which, however, when tested by court, burst leaving behind a disastrous trail of suffering. The accused suffered emotionally. Careers — both political and professional — were ruined besides causing huge economic loss. Many an accused lived and died with a stigma. It is hoped that this elite Investigating Agency will be more responsible in future.

After these deadly blows, what remained were the formalities of burying l’affaire Bofors. On December 31, 2005, the CBI informed the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service that it had not been able to link the money in Quattrocchi’s two UK accounts with the Bofors payments; and a week later the accounts were unfrozen.

In February 2007, the Italian businessman was detained at Argentina’s Iguazu international airport on an Interpol red corner notice and sent to custody. But the CBI under the UPA government was not going to extend itself to get the Italian businessman extradited even if that were possible. It failed to produce the necessary legal documents in court, lost the case, and subsequently withdrew all charges against him. With Quattrocchi’s death from a stroke in July 2013, the Bofors corruption case reached its natural end.

But the epitaph had been written in advance, by chief metropolitan magistrate Vinod Yadav, while discharging Quattrocchi in 2011. The CBI, despite "spending through the nose for about 21 years," he observed, ‘has not been able to put forward legally sustainable evidence with regard to conspiracy in the matter. Further, in the case of Mr Quattrocchi, as against the alleged kickback of Rs. 64 crore he received, the CBI had by 2005 already spent around Rs 250 crore on the investigation, which is sheer wastage of public money’.

The magistrate then went on to quote two famous lines from an old Hindi film song — "Woh afsana jisse anjaam tak laana na ho mumkin, usse ek khoobsurat mod dekhar chhodna hi achha" (A story that cannot be taken to a logical end, it is better to leave it at a good juncture)12.

The moral of the story could well be that the "good juncture" had been reached in October 1989, when the journalistic investigation had done virtually all it could, proved its case in the court of public opinion, and made a worthwhile difference to politics by bringing the issue of grand corruption to the fore. And that was that.

(Excerpted with permission from Aleph Book Company.)

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N Ram N Ram @nramind

Chairman, Kasturi & Sons Ltd.; Publisher & former Editor-in-Chief, The Hindu Group of Publications; Trustee, Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

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