The manner in which investigations and prosecutions in the Bofors case were consistently and spectacularly bungled is proof enough that whoever took the Bofors money is supremely powerful.
Over the last two decades, there was always someone in the CBI, the courts, the law ministry who was batting for the accused rather than the government. Somehow, Ottavio Quattrocchi always managed to be a step ahead of our law enforcement agencies. And despite the sound and fury in the media and in the Parliament, the suave Italian businessman has ended up laughing all the way to the bank.
Quattrocchi's final triumph came on Tuesday when the Solicitor General announced that the Indian government planned to withdraw all cases against him. Quattrocchi has been let off even though many legal experts considered his involvement in the Bofors scam to be an open and shut case. Not because of the investigative skills of our CBI but because the Swedish government, the Swiss courts and investigative journalist Chitra Subramaniam had provided a wealth of documentary evidence against him. In how many corruption cases can you actually succeed in finding out the number and name of the owner of the bank account into which the money was paid? All this evidence was sufficient for Interpol and the Swiss and British courts, but not the Indian authorities.
Here is a brief run-down of the cover-up:
Though the scam came to light in 1987, no FIR was registered as long as Rajiv Gandhi's government was in power. The FIR was registered only in 1990 during the Janata Dal regime and a letter rogatory sent to Swiss and Swedish authorities.
In November 1990 during the Congress-supported Chandrashekhar government, the CBI moved court to quash the FIR on the ground that it did not disclose any offence.
In 1993, then foreign minister Madhav Sinh Solanki wrote an aide memoir to the Swiss authorities urging that the case be closed and no documents sent to India. Solanki had to resign following the leak of the memoir.
In 1993, the Swiss authorities confirmed Quattrocchi's name as the beneficiary of the kickbacks from Bofors, but the CBI did not seize his passport immediately. Instead it waited 72 hours by which time Quattrocchi had fled India.
The Delhi High Court held that the Swiss documents were not properly authenticated, on the ground that they were not original documents but photocopies. The court took the curious position that because of this no offence against the accused could not be made out. During Manmohan Singh's first tenure, the law ministry advised the CBI not to appeal against the court's erroneous order.
In 2004, the Delhi High Court held in another judgment that no allegations could be proved against public servants accused in the case. The High Court came to this conclusion without a trial. The law ministry once again advised the CBI not to appeal in the Supreme Court.
In 2006, the law ministry secretly dispatched an officer to UK to inform the Crown Prosecution that no case was made out against Quattrocchi and the two erroneous High Court orders were cited to establish this. The law ministry's move was to facilitate Quattrocchi to defreeze his bank accounts and withdraw the alleged Bofors bribe money. By the time the news leaked and the Supreme Court ordered that efforts be made to re-freeze Quattrocchi's bank accounts, the Rs 23 crore in bank account had been spirited away.
In 2007, Quattrocchi was detained in Argentina because of an Interpol Red Corner Notice pending against him. The CBI flew to Argentina, brandishing the judgments of the High Court, which the government had declined to appeal against, to facilitate his release from prison. Incidentally, the automatic appeal was also withdrawn by the law ministry, without even the token formality of consulting the CBI.
The Bofors story has been popping up in the media at regular intervals for over 20 years. The rights and wrongs of the case are lost on the new generation, some of whom were born after the Swedish Radio first broke the story back in April 1987. With the matter dragging on endlessly, indignation over bribery in the Bofors purchase has somewhat eroded. One defence put forward is that during Kargil conflict it was established that the Bofors gun at any rate was first class. Others try to deflect the issue by pointing out that the total amount of the bribes, Rs 64 crore, was chicken feed by today's standards of corruption. Some even argue, falsely, that more money was in fact probably spent on investigations in the case. A few of those who have been at the forefront in pressing the Bofors corruption charges, such as V P Singh and Ram Jethmalani, did a volte face when it suited their political
The Bofors case illustrates that Indian democracy has yet to mature to the level where the law is blind and applies in the same manner to one and all. In India those in high places know how to work the system to their advantage, even if it takes more than two decades to complete the process.