Monday, February 26, 2007

The Quattrocchi trail…

Despite concerted attempt to cover up, the Bofors story keeps popping up causing ripples in the political arena. The arrest and detention of Ottavio Quattrocchi in Argentina should embarrass the Congress party. But then, it is best to stop hoping even now that one of the beneficiaries in this multi-crore scam will be brought to book. A look into the long record of cover-up that marks the Bofors story cannot but lead to this pessimism.

It now transpires that the CBI was informed of Quattrocchi’s detention soon after it happened on February 6, 2007. But then, the agency, true to its nature, refrained from celebrating the event. The top brass in the investigating agency would have waited until March 6, 2007 and ensured the release of this Italian businessman. The law requires that the Government of India submit documents to justify Quattrocchi’s extradition from Argentina within a month after his arrest. And if only the news was kept under wraps for a couple of weeks more, this Italian businessman would have been released from Argentina too.

Well. This did not happen because the news of Quattrocchi’s arrest in Argentina is now out. The Congress party is back at its old game: That the law must take its course. This is simply ridiculous. For, the law can take its course only if the party that is in power refrains from doing things that will derail the legal process. And the Bofors story is an example of both corruption at high places and of a massive and protracted cover-up. The latest aspect of this cover-up saga being that the CBI did not let anyone know that the authorities in Argentina have acted upon its request and detained Quattrocchi on the basis of the Red Corner Notice against him. It is useful, now, to recall some of the crucial aspects of the Bofors trail and Quattrocchi’s role in it.

It all began in 1985 when the Government of India decided to look out for a field gun and a committee under the then Defence Secretary, S.K.Bhatnagar (who is no longer alive now) shortlisted Bofors and Sofma (of France) for the purpose. In February 1986, the Army Headquarters found Bofors to be better than Sofma. The reason was that the Swedish gun would shoot and scoot (and hence better) while the French gun would not. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi then declared that unlike other defence deals, the Bofors contract excluded middlemen. The story, however, turned out to be different.

The Swedish National Radio, put out the news that the gun manufacturer had paid $ 250 million (Rs. 64 Crores going by the exchange rate at that time) into three coded accounts in a Swiss Bank. The accounts were: Svenska that belonged to W.N.Chadha (a registered arms dealer), Pitco that belonged to the Hinduja brothers and AE Services being a shell company operated by Colbar Investments, registered in the Panama and controlled by Quattrocchi and his wife Maria.

Quattrocchi represented Snam Progetti in India since 1964 and had become an influential player in Delhi after 1984. So much so that he was employed by AB Bofors to help them swing the gun deal.The deal for 400 field guns was clinched on March 24, 1986, a week before the fiscal year closed.
Of the Rs. 64 Crores that AB Bofors paid into the three coded accounts, $ 7.3 million (Rs. 18.7 Crores) went to Quattrocchi’s account in the Nordfinanz Bank in Zurich on September 3, 1986. Most of this money was transferred to the Union Bank of Swizerland, Geneva and into the account of Colbar Invesment within a couple of months and then to yet another bank in the British Channel Islands.

The CBI got to investigate the case only after the Congress lost power in 1989 and was getting close to the truth. But the Congress returned to power and the then Foreign Affairs Minister, Madhavsinh Solanki carried an anonymous note to his Swiss counterpart conveying that the investigation into the Bofors deal be slowed down. Solanki has still not disclosed as to who gave him the note and why he carried that. Quattrocchi, meanwhile, stayed on in India. The Swiss authorities confirmed on July 23, 1993 that Quattrocchi was the man behind AE Services into which the gun manufacturer had put in money. The Italian national flew off to Malaysia from New Delhi on the night of July 29, 1993.

The next small step ahead in the Bofors story was possible only after the United Front came to power in May 1996. The papers that were obtained by the CBI from the Swiss banks confirmed that W.N.Chadha, the Hinduja brothers and Ottavio Quattrocchi had received money from Bofors. And the request to the Interpol for a Red Corner Notice against Quattrocchi followed this.

The CBI continued to pursue the case and the first chargesheet implicating Quattrocchi (along with others) was filed in 1999. The Congress, we know, was not in power than. This case is pending trial even now in the Special Court. Quattrocchi, meanwhile, shifted his money from one bank to another even while he lived in Malaysia; and successfully fought a legal battle against being extradited to India.

Meanwhile, in 2003, the CBI, through the Crown Prosecution Service in London, managed to have Quattrocchi’s account in the BSI-AG Bank (another Swiss bank) frozen. The CPS did that and the decision of the lower court was upheld by a three member bench of the High Court in London.

The CBI was doing its job but not for long. And ``help’’ came from the Delhi High Court when it dismissed the case on grounds that the papers presented by the investigating agency were not authenticated by the Swiss authorities. The agency could have gone on appeal after rectifying the technical shortcoming. It did not do that. The Congress was back in power by now. And B.Datta, a law officer of the Union Government was sent to London where he met with officials of the Crown Prosecution Service and asked them to do whatever had to be done to let Ottavio Quattrocchi operate his account in the BSI-AG bank.

The latest turn in the trail – that the CBI sat on an information as critical as the detention of Quattrocchi for at least 17 days after it was informed – is only a proof, if it was needed at all, that the truth about the Bofors deal will not be allowed to come out as long as the Congress party is in power. It is foolish to expect the CBI get Quattrocchi extradited from Argentina now. The team (from the MEA) which is scheduled to leave this February 28 will only commit blunders there in order to ensure that the Argentinian authorities refuse to send the Italian fugitive to India.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Remembering 1857…. Some issues (had this published in the Economic Times, February 3, 2007)

The celebrations observing the 150th anniversary of the events of 1857 is now cause for some political debate in Delhi. And unlike the instances in the recent past, where the debates were triggered by the BJP and other arms of the RSS, the one this time is between the Congress party and the CPI(M). In that sense, the controversy is not marked by the usual charges of any diabolical designs.

This is not to say that there is nothing diabolical about the BJP’s acts while in power to revise curriculum in general and history writing in particular.

The CPI(M) has disputed the Congress party’s claims to monopoly over a legacy that belongs to the communists as well. And the party has decided to establish its own claim over that legacy by observing the anniversary in its own way. Well. Both the Congress party and the CPI(M) were founded years after the events of 1857; the Congress, as we all know came into being in 1885, the CPI in 1924 and the CPI(M) in 1964.

Let that be as it is. The issue is not whether the leaders of any of these parties were involved in the events of 1857. A legatee, in the historical sense, is not determined in the same way as it is in the legal sense and hence need not depend on a will or by birth. Claims to a legacy, in the historical sense, is determined from an ideological lineage; in other words, recalling the past is done in order to invent the present from the point of view of the future. And in that sense, the CPI(M) should not attempt to claim the legacy of 1857.

This does not, in any sense, mean that the legacy of 1857 belongs to the BJP or any other arm of the RSS. And this is a valid statement notwithstanding the fact that it was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar who first called the 1857 events as the First War of Indian Independence. Savarkar’s approach to the events of 1857 is only one more instance of the many inconsistencies he had with the larger Hindutwa ideology that unfolded during his own time and after.

Savarkar, for instance, was an atheist. He refused to belong to the RSS. And he called the events of 1857 that culminated in the crowning of Bahadur Shah Zafar, last of the Moghuls as Emperor against the British East India Company and its Governor General. This being the fact, there is a serious infirmity in the RSS and its outfits celebrating Savarkar now. The RSS notion of Indian nationalism, formulated by M.S.Golwalkar, after all, traces back India’s subjugation to Mohammed Ghazni vandalizing Somnath. The struggle for freedom, for the Sangh, hence, began with every bit of resistance since then and through the battles fought by Maharana Pratap and Chatrapathi Shivaji.

And then, it claims to Tilak’s legacy because his association with the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. This claim is not contested by a section of the nationalist and secular historians only because they have their own problems with Tilaks resort, even if it was only symbolical, to religious traditions for mobilizing opinion against the British. All this should do to establish that the RSS and its outfits too have nothing in common with the legacy of the events of 1857.

Insofar as the Indian National Congress (not the same as the Congress party of the present) is concerned, it makes sense to recall Jawaharlal Nehru’s assessment of the events of 1857: ``Essentially’’ says Nehru, ``it was a feudal outburst, headed by feudal chiefs and their followers and aided by the widespread anti-foreign sentiments.’’ And he goes on: ``Inevitably it looked up to the relic of the Moghul dynasty, still sitting in the Delhi palace, but feeble and old and powerless.’’ Nehru then stresses: ``It brought out all the inherent weaknesses of the old regime, which was making its last despairing effort to drive out foreign rule… There was hardly any national and unifying sentiment among the leaders and a mere anti-foreign feeling, coupled with a desire to maintain their feudal privileges, was a poor substitute for this.’’

Nehru certainly cannot be accused of being less nationalist than Sonia Gandhi, his daughter Indira’s daughter-in-law. And the Indian National Congress, of which he was an integral part until its transformation into the Congress party in August 1946 (when the Interim Cabinet, he headed, came into place), was indeed committed to this view that 1857 did not represent the idea of independence. Lest it be mistaken, the roots of the idea of independence, even from Nehru’s approach are to be found in the defeat and the destruction of the old order, based on feudal values, in 1857.

It is another matter that with the transformation of that Indian National Congress into the Congress party and that of Nehru from being the agitator into independent India’s Prime Minister, the agenda was revised. And the regime that he presided over did as much as it could (and achieved a large measure of success too) to accommodate and preserve many aspects of the feudal order. This is evident from the prominent role that some descendants of the old kingdoms play in the party’s affairs and also that of the nation even now. This, incidentally, is true of the BJP as much as it is with the Congress. And it is only natural that these parties would want to celebrate 1857.

But then, it is strange that the CPI(M) is now upset over its exclusion from this ``national’’ celebration of the 150th anniversary of 1857, an event in history that was essentially a last ditch effort by the old order. Those who romanticize the past and resist modernity are dismissed as Narodniks by the officials in the party otherwise. Prakash Karat, incidentally describes those who celebrate the cause of the farmer in Singur and hence oppose the acquisition of farm lands for industrial use as Narodniks!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Mahatma, his ism and the Congress Party.....

It is rare, in recent times, to find prominent political leaders observing the anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination. And it has always bothered me as to why the nation’s leaders did not decide to declare January 30 as a day of national importance. In many ways, it would have been far more appropriate for the nation building project than October 2.

Let me explain why I feel that way: In the event we decide to observe January 30 as a significant day, it will then become necessary that our Prime Minister, President and the various Chief Ministers and the State Governors will agree to address gatherings or participate in public functions to recall that the father of the nation was killed on this day in 1948.

Let me stress the point that he was killed and this is different from saying that the Mahatma died on this day in 1948. The reason is that one does come across notes by even senior media professionals that refrain from saying that the Mahatma was killed this day. They have their own reasons to say that January 30 is the Mahatma’s death anniversary!

Now, if January 30 was declared a national holiday instead of October 2, it would become imperative to recall that the father of the nation was killed. And then, it is possible that children ask their parents or their teachers (if teachers are honest and are there because they like to teach and not because they did not find any other job) as to who killed the father of the nation.

And those who know the answer would say that it was Nathuram Godse. And the child, in the natural course, will ask why did this Godse kill the Mahatma. The parents and the teachers will then have to explain that the Mahatma strived to build a nation that did not discriminate against the Muslims and that Godse was impressed by a school of thought, expounded by K.B.Hedgewar and M.S.Golwalkar, that India belonged to the Hindus alone and that since Gandhi was against excluding the Muslims from the nation building project, Godse went and shot him dead.

And if the child is curious, the next question would be as to who Golwalkar and Hedgewar were and whether Godse was just a loner or whether he had the support of some forces. The answer then will have to be that Hedgewar founded the RSS and Golwalkar succeeded him as its chief. And that Godse was helped in the gory assassination by a number of feudal and rich men.

The child will then begin to wonder about the present, see Gandhi as an icon and then be convinced against any kind of sectarian influences. In other words, the child could grow up imagining India as a democratic nation and detesting any attempt to distort this by way of raking up communal and other undemocratic ideas. But then, this has not happened and January 30, every year is just another day. And this year, we had a holiday because it happened to be Moharrum!

It so happened that this year we had something more than the ritual this year. We had the Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Kenneth Kaunda sharing a platform with Dr. Manmohan Singh to observe Gandhi’s martyrdom on January 30, 2007. And Archbishop Tutu alone seemed to make the point that Gandhi and his ism did not and cannot mean a sterile appeal for peace and tranquility.

Tutu made it clear that peace and tranquility in an unequal world, in a world full of discrimination and oppression is not (repeat not) what Gandhi and his ism stood for. Gandhism, he reiterated, makes it the imperative, for all those who claimed that legacy to join and strengthen the struggle against inequality and oppression.

It is sad, in a sense, that our own Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, whose party claims to be the sole inheritors of the Mahatma’s legacy, just reduced Gandhi to a saint in the same way as Nehru and all others in the Congress party have done all the years.

Well, it is unfair to have expected Manmohan Singh, who is Prime Minister only because he is a loyal and servile member of the Congress party and a faithful of Sonia Gandhi to remember the Mahatma in the same perspective as Archbishop Tutu whose life was spent in leading the resistance against the apartheid regime in South Africa and against the larger imperialist agenda.

Manmohan Singh cannot but reduce Gandhi into a saint and his ism into a sterile discourse on non-violence. And then pave the way to a vulgar caricaturing of that in the form of a `laghe raho munnabhai.’’

One feels sorry for Archbishop Tutu and Kenneth Kaunda that they agreed to share the platform with someone like Manmohan Singh.