It pleased me to hear the Finance Minister mention Ottavio Quattrocchi in Parliament last week. Not just because it might stop Rahul Gandhi from chanting ‘fair and lovely’ every five minutes, but because ‘Q’ is an important reminder of the exact moment when India began to become a kleptocracy. Bofors was the first major theft of public money for private gain, and it was the first time that the trail of bribery and corruption led all the way up to the Prime Minister of India and his friends.
For those who may have forgotten, may I remind you that after that Swedish radio station broke the story, Bofors officials came to India to reveal who they had bribed to sell their guns. And Rajiv Gandhi told them that he did not want the names revealed because this could harm ‘national security’. The opposite would have happened. In any case, we soon found out who ‘Q’ was thanks to some outstanding investigative journalism by my friend Chitra Subramaniam.
It is possible that the Congress party’s heir apparent was not interested enough in politics in those long ago days and so does not remember these events. Or perhaps he is cleverer than I think he is and knows that public memory is so short that he can get away with taunting the Prime Minister about black money on an hourly basis. He has even blamed the Modi government for being unable to prevent Vijay Mallya from absconding. He made this charge without noticing that it was under his Mummyji’s government that public sector banks gave Mallya the loans he is now unable to pay back. I am no fan of Mallya’s business practices or lifestyle, but feel the need to point out here that he is a legitimate businessman. He sank vast amounts into Kingfisher Airlines in the hope that he could create a great airline, not because he was concealing ill-gotten wealth.
Somehow my comrades in the media have not noticed that this is more than we can say about Uncle Ottavio who fled India like a thief on the night of July 29, 1993. The reason for this sudden departure was that it became public that day that Bofors bribe money had been found in Swiss bank accounts in his name and that of his wife Maria. A question that continues to remain unanswered is why an armaments company would give huge bribes to a fertiliser salesman, unless it was because his proximity to India’s Prime Minister enabled a big arms deal.
It is true that Sonia Gandhi after she became de facto prime minister of India has denied that Quattrocchi was ever a close friend. It is also true that this is a big fat lie. Or why would her government have gone out of its way in 2006 to unfreeze Quattrocchi’s London bank accounts that contained more than $1 million? Nobody made a fuss because by then it was well known that our first BJP prime minister had done almost nothing to bring Quattrocchi back to India. One of the biggest failures of Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Prime Minister was his inexplicable reluctance to bring closure to the Bofors scandal. Had he done this, India would perhaps not have become the kleptocracy it has become today.
The unfortunate truth is that it is not easy to catch the thieves any more because the money they have stolen and hidden in foreign lands is concealed very, very well. Some of it is invested in real estate in Dubai, London and New York, and some of it is hidden in shell companies that are owned by other shell companies. There is almost no chance of this money ever being brought back to India, so the Prime Minister made a big mistake during the 2014 election campaign when he said that if the figures of stolen money in foreign banks were true, every Indian would get Rs 15 lakh. He would have won the election anyway so it is hard to understand why he made such a reckless claim, unless he was under the influence of Baba Ramdev. A big mistake for which he will pay an increasingly heavy price unless he can continue to ensure that none of his ministers are caught with their hands in the till.
All that the Prime Minister can do now is take baby steps towards dismantling the kleptocracy. Taxes can be made simpler as can government contracts. Modi claimed at the recent Make in India jamboree that he had made government dealings and deals more transparent, but he seems not to have noticed that he is trying to implement his new measures through the same officials who have over the years built up large stashes of black money. Why should they change their ways even if his ministers do?