With an exquisite and perfectly understandable sense of timing, The Asian Age carried a headline on April 8: “Bofors truth points to Quattrocchi, Sonia: ‘I have seen all the documents pertaining to the Bofors-India case… Pressure from India (blanked out evidence)… Sonia Gandhi must be questioned. I know what I am saying.’” Young readers are intended to think: at last Sonia is nailed. She is the sole surviving Bofors culprit in India, and she has the gumption to lead the Congress party. Only five months ago, the Congress put up hoardings everywhere showing Rajiv saying: “I know that some day I will be proved innocent.” Innocent' Sten Lindstrom, the Swedish police officer who was the principal investigator in the Bofors-India Howitzer scandal, says it all. “He [Martin Ardbo] was especially quiet about the last-minute contract with A.E. Services, a deal that he personally oversaw. It was clear to me that this was the political pay-off. Police officers know that the person who comes in last and walks off with a sum of money for no apparent work is a political payment made to people who have the power to close the deal.”
Elections are just three weeks away, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party are locked in a no-holds-barred struggle, political debate has sunk to the level of comparing Sonia Gandhi to a Jersey cow, and resurrection of Bofors will be priceless grist to the BJP mill. But journalistic ethic comes first: a newsworthy story must be printed whenever it comes. It is not just a matter of ethics, but of competition. News is like a $100 bill lying on the ground: you had better pick it up and not worry too much about the morality of it, for it will not stay there for long.
Except that this $100 bill was lying there for five weeks. In a column on February 19, T.V.R. Shenoy wrote: “There could be another reason why Sonia Gandhi will attempt a bid for the spotlight by announcing her decision to take sanyasa — Bofors. I know the Delhi high court has announced that Rajiv Gandhi was innocent of wrongdoing, but will that truly be the last word on the subject' In Sweden, where the news of the scandal first burst, a man named Sten Lindstrom is preparing to break his silence. For the benefit of those who don’t remember the fine details of the Bofors case, Lindstrom was the chief investigator at the Swedish end. Rumour has it that he is insisting that the investigation should now focus on just one aspect — the friendship between the First Family of the Congress (I) and Ottavio Quattrocchi.”
So Lindstrom was preparing to break his silence some weeks ago — to publish the article that The Asian Age burst upon an unsuspecting India on April 8.
This fact was known to T.V.R. Shenoy, whose ability to ferret out news from the BJP brass is legendary. I am not saying by any means that the BJP was preparing so long ago to plant the story at a strategic moment. Such Machiavellism would be quite foreign to the party of Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitley or Pramod Mahajan. Nor would I ever say that T.V.R. Shenoy was responsible for planting the story. For remember the first rule of journalism: if you get something newsworthy, rush into the media with it yourself — do not wait for some straggler to come up after you to rush with it. If Shenoy had had the story, he would have broken it straightaway instead of making a mystery of it.
But Bofors burst into the open in 1986; why did Lindstrom hold the scandalous story to his chest for eighteen long years' Why did he decide to break his silence in 2004'
He did not. “On February 8, 1997, Sweden’s top investigator Sten Lindstrom, who headed the Bofors investigation in that country, broke his 10-year silence to say that if India probed the Quattrocchi link, it would reveal the connection between the gun deal and the political payoffs. Asked if this was the Gandhi link that had dogged the Bofors affair, he said, ‘All information we had at that time pointed in this direction.’ He said that this very Gandhi link was being explored when under pressure from India, the investigation in Sweden was called off in early 1988.” So wrote Chitra Subrahmaniam in Savvy magazine in early 1998. Soon every enterprising Indian journalist was looking for Lindstrom. Ranjit Bhushan of Outlook traced him; Lindstrom had risen to become the chief of Sweden’s National Bureau of Investigation. He told Bhushan: “Sonia could not claim innocence in the face of findings conducted in the payoffs in the last decade or so.”
Now that is another breach of the golden rule of journalism: never let news lie around, publish it immediately. Why did Chitra Subrahmaniam wait a year before disclosing Lindstrom’s revelation' It may be that she could not find the right medium. By 1997, Bofors was old hat. The Congress was out of power, so no electoral mileage was to be gained from revelations about Bofors. Savvy was a strange place to publish news about Bofors for a journalist who had broken the Bofors story in The Hindu ten years before. Or perhaps it took her time to persuade Lindstrom to go public. After all, he was a dutiful, buttoned-up Swedish police officer; and to the best of my knowledge he has not gone public on any other investigation.
If it was Chitra Subrahmaniam who persuaded him to break his silence then, it was Seema Mustafa this time. And why' She is no doubt doing her job. No one who reads her could ever suspect her of being a journeyman of the BJP. Inconceivable as it is in today’s India, she even writes the uncomfortable truth about Vajpayee. She was just sent to Stockholm to pursue a story, and she did.
But why now' Shenoy has an answer in his February column: that once this story breaks, Sonia will be so reviled, she will become such a liability to the Congress, that she will announce that she never wants to be the prime minister of India.
Will she' Will she not' We will know soon. But I do find certain features of the Bofors affair most interesting. First, there is no mystery about who were the middlemen, who got the money: Win Chadha, th Hinduja brothers and Ottavio Quattrocchi. Chadha is dead; the Hindujas and Quattrocchi are being sued by the CBI in the Delhi courts. But no one is convicted, and no one is acquitted; the legal process goes on till people die. Rajiv was not cleared till he died, nor is Sonia likely to be. It may be because our investigative and judicial systems are what they are, but it is also very convenient for the BJP: it is remarkable how precisely the current scandal is timed. Such sensations can be created only as long as Sonia is neither convicted nor acquitted. And I bet that she will not even be charged.
Second, the Indian press suffers from convenient amnesia. The Bofors scandal broke 18 years ago. But the story bursts out again and again in the press, and each time it is written up as if for the first time. The strange thing is, newspapers do not refer even to their own earlier stories. Third, scandals about defence purchases are not unknown elsewhere. Helmut Kohl had to step down because of one; Lockheed was shown to have bribed Tanaka Kakuei, Japanese prime minister. But many countries actually manage to buy arms year after year without a scandal. It is only in our country that despite such an upright minister as George Fernandes toiling for five years, we cannot even replicate a system other countries have developed to stop arms bribes.
Finally, for a country that can never bring anybody to book, never complete a judicial process, blacklisting a firm that bribes is pretty stupid. Had it not been for Bofors guns, we would not have been able to dislodge the Pakistanis from the heights of Kargil. We could do with more and better Bofors guns; we need ammunition for them all the time. But instead of buying it from Bofors, we buy it from shady agents in Bulgaria and South Africa who take their cut and sell us the shells they got from Bofors. It needs Indian genius to be that stupid. Because stupidity pays in India.