First Bofors, then AgustaWestland, now Rafale – the ‘foreign hand’ that paralyses India

Over the years, International media agencies have broken three major stories that have had a profound impact on India’s defense procurement process. They are the Bofors deal, the AgustaWestland scandal and, now, the Rafale controversy. A major scandal reaches a certain proportion, the deal is cancelled and the competitors move in the India’s multimillion-dollar arms market.

International conspiracy?

No serious investigative journalist, some of whom have thoroughly studied all the three cases, would buy that. But questions about how Indian politicians, the media and governments of the day responded when the story first broke out, will continue to hover over the Indian landscape leaving a trail of unsolved puzzles.

Bofors-Gu

The predictable trajectory of such controversies when they first surfaced, has invariably been a kind of all-consuming panic followed by media hype verging on hysteria and finally, clumsy, unmistakable attempts at cover ups. Then, depending on which government is in power, ensues a string of charge sheets and arrests. At the end of the day, virtually nothing substantial emerges, except of course, political brownie points, and if one is lucky, as in the case of Bofors, a huge opposition-inspired campaign is launched to unseat the government.

The Bofors case was disposed off for lack of evidence over 20 years after it surfaced. Now, there is an attempt to revive it after the High Court in 2005 demolished the case. The Attorney General is also reported to have opined that nothing would come of it.

Take the AgustaWestland case. Five years after the AgustaWestland story broke, a 334-page document circulated by the highest court in Italy last month, has demolished the entire case. In the past four years, the Agusta case was preceded by huge media hype. India is still going ahead with its charge sheet. But, privately, CBI officials concede that the Italian prosecutors botched up the case at their end.

agustawestland agent christian michel is scot free

What’s going to happen to Rafale next? Going by the other two cases, the writing on the wall is more or less clear for all to see.

Let us examine both, the Bofors and the Westland case, just in terms of government responses and media hype. In the Bofors case, it was the Swedish Radio which broke the story on April 16, 1987. The Radio was clear that the Prime Minister was involved in kickbacks in the Bofors deal. The initial reaction was denial. For months and years, the government resisted a joint parliamentary probe; later, the CBI took over the case. The disclosures kept coming from foreign sources at regular intervals. A mysterious bank account here, a name with initials elsewhere.  The most important disclosure was by the Swedish prosecutor who laid his hands on the diary of a senior executive, Martin Ardbo. Several names did the rounds. But finally, nothing came of it. For years, Quattrocchi, a personal friend of the Gandhis, was being chased from Milan to Malaysia while the main agent – Win Chadha died and so did Bhatnagar, the Defense Secretary at that time, and then, Rajiv Gandhi himself.  Eventually, Quattrocchi himself died, after which it was only a matter of time before the lid came down on the Bofors case.

In the case of AgustaWestland, it grabbed the attention of the Indian press from the moment it first surfaced in Italian newspapers in February 2012. Meanwhile, the government got close, sniffing potential trouble but there seemed to be no evidence of any wrongdoing.  Till the arrest of Finmeccanica Chief in 2013. That was when panic set in and a CBI enquiry was ordered. Agusta was blacklisted and the order cancelled. Now, with the judgment clearing Westland, although the case continues in India, it certainly dilutes the main charge. According to the Italian Judge, the main case, which is corruption, is not made out. The CBI and ED are depending mainly on the proceedings of the Italian courts that went on for over 3 years from 2013 onwards.

In the case of Rafale, the government was not forthcoming about the price. But within days, the issue of Anil Ambani was raked up by a section of the media. The government denied using any pressure. Then the French website, Mediapart, raised the issue of a Hollande disclosure. Even then the government’s reluctance to come clean with all the facts was clearly evident. If the decision to buy the aircraft was because of –

  1. a) a pressing need for the IAF
  2. b) dealing with Dassault that was not comfortable with HAL

The option could have been to order an emergency purchase.

There is nothing to suggest so far at least, that there is any personal wrongdoing. No smoking gun. Did advisers tell the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to desist from commenting on the deal?

In the case of Bofors, Rajiv Gandhi got so many contradictory pieces of advice from so many self-styled advisers that the left hand did not know what the right hand was doing. A.K. Antony, in his zeal to prove that he was not personally involved in wrongdoing, banned defense companies involved in the slightest transgressions and claimed that he would not spare the guilty. Notwithstanding all their efforts, neither Rajiv Gandhi nor the UPA Government which finalized Agusta, could avoid the taint of that controversy. What is ironical is that both the deals have been exonerated in the courts.

Considering that media agencies depend largely on whistle-blowers to spin a sensational yarn around nuggets of facts, in both the Bofors and Agusta case, it is clear who leaked the information. In the case of Bofors, Sten Lindstrom, the former head of the Swedish police who led the investigations into the Bofors-India howitzer deal, was a major source. In an interview, he is reported to have admitted, “There was no evidence that Rajiv Gandhi had received any bribe. But we watched the massive cover-up in India and Sweden and did nothing. Many Indian institutions were tarred; innocent people were punished while the guilty got away.”

In the Agusta case, it was the former executive of Finmeccanica, Borgogni who was settling scores with Orsi, the Finmeccanica chief. After his acquittal, Orsi announced his plans to sue the company’s former external relations manager, Lorenzo Borgogni. During his cross examination in November 2012 in the court of Naples, Borgogni admitted that he had no evidence of payoffs; he had heard rumours. “I can’t say this with any accuracy. I only know that the payout was around 41 million and I heard rumours.”

In the case of Rafale too, there has been extensive media hype accompanied by strident pressure from the Congress. In terms of reactions, the Government appears to be releasing information in bits and pieces.  Could a full disclosure from the Prime Minister, against whom there are no personal allegations of corruption, have brought matters to a dignified close? Or is it now too late?

Is Rafale being allowed to go the way of Bofors and AgustaWestland? No facts, just a lot of sound and fury that merely serves as political fodder.

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