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.