The Bofors scandal was a major corruption scandal in India in the 1980s and 1990s, initiated by Congress politicians and implicating the prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi and several others who were accused of receiving kickbacks from Bofors AB for winning a bid to supply India's 155 mm field howitzer. The scale of the corruption was far worse than any that India had seen before and directly led to the defeat of Gandhi's ruling Indian National Congress party in the November 1989 general elections. The Swedish company paid 640 million (US$9.8 million) in kickbacks to top Indian politicians and key defence officials. The case came into light during Vishwanath Pratap Singh's tenure as defence minister, and was revealed through investigative journalism by a team led by N. Ram of the newspaper The Hindu. The journalist who secured the over 350 documents that detailed the payoffs was Chitra Subramaniam reporting for The Hindu. Later the articles were published in The Indian Express and The Statesman when The Hindu stopped publishing stories about the Bofors scandal under immense government pressure and Chitra Subramaniam moved to the two newspapers. In an interview with her, published in "The Hoot" in April 2012 on the 25th anniversary of the revelations Sten Lindstrom, former chief of Swedish police discussed why he leaked the documents to her and the role of whistle-blowers in a democracy.
Chronology of events and investigation
On 24 March 1986, a $285 million contract between the Govt of India and Swedish arms company Bofors was signed for supply of 410 155mm Howitzer field guns. About a year later, on 16 April 1987, Swedish Radio alleged that Bofors paid kickbacks to top Indian politicians and key defence officials to seal the deal.
The middleman associated with the scandal was Ottavio Quattrocchi, an Italian businessman who represented the petrochemicals firm Snamprogetti. Quattrocchi was reportedly close to the family of Rajiv Gandhi and emerged as a powerful broker in the 1980s between big businesses and the Indian government. While the case was being investigated, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated on 21 May 1991 for an unrelated cause by the LTTE. In 1997, the Swiss banks released some 500 documents after years of legal battle. On 22 October 1999 (when National Democratic Alliance government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power) the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed the first chargesheet against Quattrocchi, Win Chadha, Rajiv Gandhi, the defence secretary S. K. Bhatnagar and a number of others. In second half of 2001, Win Chadha and S. K. Bhatnagar died.
Meanwhile the central government changed and Indian National Congress came to power after 2004 Lok Sabha elections. On 5 February 2004, the Delhi High Court quashed the charges of bribery against Rajiv Gandhi and others, On 31 May 2005, the Delhi High Court dismissed the allegations against the British business brothers, Shrichand, Gopichand and Prakash Hinduja, but charges against others remain. In December 2005, Mr B. Daat, the Additional Solicitor General of India, acting on behalf of the Indian Government and the CBI, requested the British Government that two British bank accounts of Ottavio Quattrocchi be unfrozen on the grounds of insufficient evidence to link these accounts to the Bofors payoff. The two accounts, containing €3 million and $1 million, had been frozen. On 16 January, the Indian Supreme Court directed the Indian government to ensure that Ottavio Quattrocchi did not withdraw money from the two bank accounts in London. The CBI, the Indian federal law enforcement agency, on 23 January 2006 admitted that roughly Rs 210 million, about US $4.6 million, in the two accounts have already been withdrawn by the accused. The British government released the funds later.
However, on 16 January 2006, CBI claimed in an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court that they were still pursuing extradition orders for Quattrocchi. The Interpol, at the request of the CBI, has a long-standing red corner notice to arrest Quattrocchi. Quattrocchi was detained in Argentina on 6 February 2007, but the news of his detention was released by the CBI only on 23 February. Quattrocchi was released by Argentinian police. However, his passport was impounded and he was not allowed to leave the country.
As there was no extradition treaty between India and Argentina, the case was presented in the Argentine Supreme Court. The government of India lost the extradition case as the government of India did not provide a key court order which was the basis of Quattrocchi's arrest. In the aftermath, the government did not appeal this decision because of delays in securing an official English translation of the court's decision.
A Delhi court provided temporary relief for Quattrocchi from the case, for lack of sufficient evidence against him, on 4 March 2011. However the case is still going on.
On 12th July 2013, Quattrochi died of a heart attack in Milan.
Despite the controversy the Bofors gun was used extensively as the primary field artillery during the Kargil War with Pakistan and gave India 'an edge' against Pakistan according to battlefield commanders.
In his book, Unknown Facets of Rajiv Gandhi, Jyoti Basu and Indrajit Gupta, released on November 2013, former CBI director Dr A P Mukherjee wrote that Rajiv Gandhi wanted commission paid by defence suppliers to be used exclusively for the purpose of meeting expenses of running the Congress party. Mukherjee said Gandhi explained his position in a meeting on June 19, 1989, during a meeting between the two at the Prime Minister's residence.
Allegations against CBI
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CBI has been criticised by experts, social workers, political parties and people at large for the manner in which it has handled this case. Some points to note are:
- Delay in lodging an FIR
- Delay in sending letter rogatories
- Not appealing against the judgement of the Delhi High Court in 2004
- De-freezing of Quattrocchi's bank account in London by saying to the Crown Prosecutor that there is no case against Quattrocchi
- Putting up a very weak case for Quattrocchi's extradition from Argentina. Subsequently, no appeal against lower court's verdict
- The withdrawal of the Interpol Red Corner notice
- Finally, withdrawal of its case against Quattrocchi. Reacting to this, Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Vinod Yadav said that, "I agree that there are certain malafide intentions in the case and there is no doubt in that"
- Justice Ajit Bharihoke, the special CBI court judge in whose court the case was argued.
- List of scandals in India
- Corruption in India
- Corruption Perceptions Index
- Indian political scandals
- Rent seeking
- Jan Lokpal Bill
- Indian Express article on CBI's handling of the Bofors scam under NDA and UPA
- Bofors resurrects, gives more ammo to BJP
- Death Of A Scandal – Bofors, India's Watergate
- Lecture by an IMF aid projects manager about government bribery
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- "Welcome to Frontline : Vol. 30 :: No. 05". The Hindu.[dead link]
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