As a gun it has proved itself many times over from the 1980s to the Kargil War but as a scam Bofors has turned out to be a damp squib. Dubbed India's first real political scandal that resulted in the fall of a government, the smoking guns of the Bofors scam were finally silenced last week when Justice R.S. Sodhi of the Delhi High Court quashed all charges against the accused Hinduja brothers and the Swedish manufacturer of the guns, AB Bofors. This judgement was in a sense a recoil of the February 2004 verdict exonerating former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and his defence secretary S.K. Bhatnagar.
| PICTURE SPEAK |
|THE LAST LAUGH: The Hinduja brothers |
The scam which wound its way through a series of ups and downs, 18 years of investigations, a joint parliamentary committee probe, visits to nine countries by CBI officials, letters rogatory to many governments and six years of trial has virtually come to an end. In his 36-page order, Justice Sodhi deplored that in pursuit of this case, "careers, both political and professional, were ruined besides causing huge economic loss. Many an accused lived and died with a stigma".
Justice Sodhi discharged the case ruling that the evidence was based on photocopies that "do not constitute certified copies or any legitimate kind of secondary evidence". Relieved, the Hinduja brothers stated, "We are delighted that truth has prevailed and our faith in the Indian judicial system has been vindicated."
To recap, it was under V.P. Singh's government that the Bofors case was registered on January 22, 1990. It was nine years later, when the NDA-another anti-Congress regime-was in power, that a chargesheet was filed. The charges claimed that AB Bofors had paid Rs 64 crore as commission to win the Rs 1,437.72 crore arms deal in March 1986 during the Rajiv Gandhi era. The CBI had named the Hindujas, along with Ottavio Quattrochi, an Italian businessman and Gandhi family friend, among the agents who had helped clinch the deal.
In the political war theatre the judgement came in handy for a new round of firing. "We demand an apology from those who pursued a political vendetta," says Congress spokesperson Jayanti Natrajan. The BJP resorted to a new firing line: that the acquittal was on technical grounds. Party spokesperson Arun Jaitley claimed that "the CBI during the successive Congress governments was pressurised to sabotage the investigation". Jaitley, who was additional solicitor-general during the V.P. Singh regime, maintains that his case still holds good. "This is not a judgement on merits. It does not hold that kickbacks were not paid. It proceeds on a mere premise that documents proving bribery and kickback were contained in certified copies," he says. Congress spokesman Abhishek Singhvi rebuts this, "We are not concerned about individual merits."
But the two parties agree on one issue. They want the CBI to account for the Rs 250 crore the investigating agency is supposed to have spent on the trans-Atlantic probe. Former prime minister A.B. Vajpayee had once said quite memorably in Parliament that "the Bofors gun has a longer range. The gun fires in Sweden but the boom is heard in India". Justice Sodhi's order was perhaps the last echo of a shot that was fired 18 years ago.