A Case Of Guilty Till Proved Innocent

Updated: Feb 15 2004, 05:30am hrs
A sad chapter in the history of Indian politics came to a close on February 4, 2004. A judge of the Delhi High Court threw out the CBI charge against Rajiv Gandhi in the Bofors corruption case. Mrs Sonia Gandhi, and her children, quite rightly claimed that the honour of Rajiv Gandhi had been vindicated. Who would not be proud of Rajiv Gandhi who, in his lifetime and after his death, for 17 years, was subjected to mudslinging, calumny and trial by the Press

It all began one afternoon in 1987 when the Swedish radio broadcast that bribes had been paid to unnamed Indian officials to secure the contract from India for the sale of the Bofors gun. The rest is history. As the drama unfolded, it consumed loyalties and friendships. The first to leave was the loyalist, Mr V P Singh, in whom Rajiv Gandhi had reposed complete trust. (Evidence: After Operation Brasstacks that took India to the brink of war against Pakistan, Rajiv Gandhi put national interest above friendship and moved Mr V P Singh to the ministry of defence over the head of close friend Mr Arun Singh.)

Mr V P Singh travelled through India accusing the Raja who was caught with his hand in the till. He would dramatically pull out a piece of paper from his pocket and claim that it contained the number of the secret bank account into which the bribes had been deposited. He coined the odious verse beginning with the words Galli galli mein shor hai.... He vowed to bring the culprits before justice within one week of forming a new government. Mr V P Singh did become Prime Minister but, thankfully, his government lasted only 11 months and met an inglorious end.

Bofors also consumed a friend, Mr Arun Singh. He gave the impression that he knew too much about the Bofors deal, a view that I contested then and contest now. If he knew anything, he did not disclose it to the investigating agencies. If he knew nothing, there was no reason for him to desert the government of a loyal and life-long friend.

The role of the Press: The most unfortunate part of the Bofors saga was the trial by the Press. Undoubtedly, the media was right in exposing facts which were either not unearthed or buried by the CBI especially the secret bank accounts and their names. The media was also absolutely right when it asserted that bribes or commissions had been paid. Where the media went wrong was in making the completely unfounded allegation that Rajiv Gandhi and members of his family were the beneficiaries of the commissions. One newspaper had even run a story on the Gandhi Trust account a tale of pure fiction.

The Bofors brief was handled by a succession of ministers in the Rajiv Gandhi government. First Mr Arun Singh, then Mr K C Pant, Mr Buta Singh and some others. The brief landed in my lap in late 1988. Applying law, logic and commonsense I came to the conclusion that money had indeed been paid by AB Bofors to secure the contract, but there was no evidence that an Indian minister or an Indian official had received the money. I sought and obtained Rajiv Gandhis permission to make this important statement on behalf of the government at the next available opportunity.

The opportunity came within days. Mr Vajpayee opened one more tiresome debate on Bofors. Defending the government, I made the statement that while money had indeed been paid by AB Bofors, the investigating agencies had not found that any Indian minister or Indian official had received the money. I still remember the look of puzzlement on Mr Vajpayees face.

He seemed stumped by the candid statement that money had been paid, but did not know how to respond to the stout defence that there was no evidence that an Indian minister or Indian official had received the money. He rose to admonish me and said that he did not expect Mr Chidambaram to make a statement exonerating the bribe takers or words to that effect. I insisted that I was speaking the truth and the whole truth.

The truth, the whole truth: Seventeen years later, that is the truth and the whole truth. There is still no evidence that an Indian minister or Indian official had received any money from AB Bofors. All those who have been accused by the CBI or found prima facie liable by the judge are foreign nationals. They may be proved guilty or found innocent, but the one man falsely accused in the Bofors case Rajiv Gandhi was completely innocent.

When Rajiv Gandhi tragically died in 1991, the dreams of millions of young Indians also died with him. I was in the midst of an election campaign, and if the tragedy had not struck at Sriperumbudur, Rajiv Gandhi would have visited my constituency on the next day at 12 noon. I can now confess that a part of me died on that day. A few weeks later, I made a statement that with death, all accusations must come to an end and appealed to the government of the day Mr Chandra Shekhars to remove the name of Rajiv Gandhi from the Bofors case. I said that I had looked Rajiv Gandhi in his eyes, had asked him a few things and I was satisfied that he was completely innocent. In June, I became a minister in Mr P V Narasimha Raos government. My statement that I had looked Rajiv Gandhi in his eyes provoked a minor debate in Parliament but, mercifully, death had stilled most of the controversy.

Enduring image: Only a few newspaper editors and Mr George Fernandes continued to believe that Rajiv Gandhi was guilty. They may carry their belief to the end of their journey in this world. The rest of us will fondly remember the many things that a young man named Rajiv Gandhi accomplished during his brief sojourn in this world. In every computer, in every STD booth, in every colour television set, in every sports stadium, in every Panchayat, in the National Immunisation Programme, in the Pulse Polio campaign, in the Festivals of India, in the flight of Prithvi and Agni, in the boom of the Bofors gun during the Kargil war, and in a hundred other things, the rest of us will see Rajiv Gandhi. And when all these are overtaken by new technological developments, we will still remember some things that will never be overtaken or overshadowed and those are the wit, the warmth and the transparent honesty of Rajiv Gandhi.

The author is a former Union finance minister