Revisiting Bofors

Bofors’ scam is one of the most significant events in the history of investigative journalism in India. The magnitude of the media coverage was such that it led to the fall of Rajiv Gandhi’s government in 1989. Of course, back then, the media had considerably more liberty than it now has when it comes to reporting against the ruling party. In light of similar allegations being made against the NDA government’s Rafale deal at the closing of its last term, revisiting this scam and its significance is a valuable exercise.

On March 24, 1986, a 1.4 billion dollar defense deal — involving 400 155mm Howitzer guns — was signed between India and Sweden. The company which had received the contract was AB Bofors. At the time, it was stated that no commission had been paid by the company to keep the overhead charges as low as possible and to ensure that India got the best price. However, on April 16, 1987, the Swedish radio aired reports that nearly 40 million dollars had been paid by Bofors to certain Indians as commission. This allegation was denied by Bofors and by the administration of the then Prime Minister, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi.

The story was picked up by journalist, then stringer for The Hindu, Chitra Subramaniam. She reported to N. Ram, then Editor, of The Hindu. The Chennai-based newspaper printed facsimiles of detailed instructions, bank papers and other documents starting in 1988. Over 200 documents were carefully and painstakingly verified, translated and brought into the public domain. For nearly a quarter of the century, the source behind these documents remained unknown.  After the documents began to get published in newspapers, the government constituted a Joint Parliamentary Committee dominated by the Congress party that concluded that there were no middlemen in the deal and no payment had been maid to any Indian individual or company. By this time, AB Bofors had already confirmed the payments but refused to reveal the identity of the individuals as that would’ve jeopardized industrial confidentiality.

When the story gathered steam in India, the government offered to cancel the contract with the Swedish company if they didn’t hand over the names of the people involved. The managing director of Bofors was told that all their top officials would be summoned to India to discuss cancellation of the contract and blacklisting of Bofors. Thus, Bofors agreed to send a delegation to India to answer all questions. However, the government did a complete U-turn and backed off from its efforts to question Bofors. In a meeting, the Prime Minister said that India had gone too far in its arm twisting tactics and Bofors was advised not to send the delegation.

When his government fell in 1989, V.P. Singh had a fallout with Rajiv Gandhi and came to power. He was projected as the saviour of India by the media amidst the scandal. However, it is now known that he had his own reasons to stall the investigation. In an interview given to Newslaundry, Chitra said that the V.P. Singh government had planted names like that of Mr. Amitabh Bachchan among others. Further, the CBI was used as a tool by the government to do as they pleased. The Swedes had frozen five bank accounts from which the money was paid to Indian middlemen. The CBI only pretended to take this issue up and, it was later learned, that the money from these accounts was transferred into a sixth account. That account was frozen at CBI’s behest but we, allegedly, never succeeded in knowing who it belonged to.

As far as the journalistic ethic is concerned, Chitra indicates that N. Ram sat on the story. He released the documents as and when he pleased. However, N. Ram maintains that when a story of this magnitude is breaking, due diligence needs to be taken care of.

In 2013, Sten Lindstrom — the Swedish policeman who was heading the inquiry at the time — came forward as the source of the leaks that Chitra had received. He shed light on how they landed on the documents as part of a routine raid. They found records where Bofors accountants were given elaborate instructions to hide names for, what appeared to be, legal payments. When the accountants failed to provide a satisfactory justification for the same, Sten decided to investigate further.

As of 2019, each party — BJP and Congress — continue to have their respective stakes in keeping the story undercover and thus, no guilty has been identified. This case stands testimony to the complexities that function underneath external deals, and the amount of stakes involved of all parties.

Picture Courtesy- Scroll

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