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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

How ‘Mr Clean’ lost his shine

The spat with V.P. Singh and the Bofors scandal dented Rajiv Gandhi’s image. After that, he could do nothing right.

Written by Inder Malhotra | Updated: December 22, 2014 12:15:22 am
At the dawn of 1987, however, Rajiv’s mind was on other things, all of which were to damage his  reputation and future. At the dawn of 1987, however, Rajiv’s mind was on other things, all of which were to damage his reputation and future.

Strangely, Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister learnt nothing from his grievous error in 1986 of trying to appease the bigots among Muslims and Hindus. He had hoped to placate both, but succeeded in infuriating both sides equally. This inevitably intensified the dispute between them over the construction of a Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, because many orthodox Hindus believe that the 16th-century mosque was built at Ram’s birthplace.

Litigation over this issue had begun in the 19th century and is still on (‘The era of political appeasement’, IE, December 8). No wonder then that at the end of the year, some thinking Indians had started worrying about what eventually came to pass on December 6, 1992, when a mob of Hindutva hotheads demolished the Babri Masjid. This led to widespread communal riots and the infamous serial blasts in what was then called Bombay.

At the dawn of 1987, however, Rajiv’s mind was on other things, all of which were to damage his reputation and future. On January 20, he startled the country and offended the entire Indian Foreign Service (IFS) by announcing at a press conference the virtual dismissal of the foreign secretary, A.P. Venkateswaran, who had been given no prior indication of the prime minister’s intention. The IFS Association unanimously passed a resolution protesting Rajiv’s action and praising Venkateswaran’s high-quality service to the country. Even Rajiv’s admirers were dismayed that his superb manners had yielded to arrogance and worse.

In her days, Indira Gandhi used to reshuffle her cabinet all too often. In this respect, her son and successor excelled her. In a reshuffle in January, Rajiv moved V.P. Singh, his finance minister, to the ministry of defence. This had nothing to do with a massive Indian military exercise codenamed Operation Brasstacks close to the Pakistan border that had brought the troops of the two countries to an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. That problem was settled diplomatically. However, Rajiv had his reasons to want to get Singh out of the finance ministry, even though the two were initially agreed on the finance minister’s mandate. Singh was to cut taxes to promote industrialisation but at the same time, initiate a huge drive against rampant tax evasion and colossal hoards of black money. Singh, however, implemented the second part of his directive with excessive zeal. For, by nature, he was inclined to be something of an Indian version of Savonarola, an Italian preacher so infamous for his self-righteousness that his countrymen had to hang him. In simple words, Singh as finance minister launched countless tax raids and hauled to jail leading industrialists and businessmen on a large scale. As it happened, many of those so treated were Rajiv’s friends and supporters. They screamed against Singh’s “raid raj” and asked the PM to remove him. Rajiv obliged them, but invited disaster. Inexplicably, neither Rajiv nor any of his close advisors realised that someone who, as finance minister, could cause trouble for his boss, would be better able do so presiding over the sensitive ministry of defence.

Soon enough, this rude reality was to explode in Rajiv’s face. But before that happened, relations between him and Singh deteriorated sharply. For, it was discovered that some months before leaving the finance ministry, Singh had authorised his subordinates to hire a private American detective agency, the Fairfax Group, to unveil the wealthy Indians who had stashed ill-gotten money in foreign banks in various tax havens. Whether by design or coincidence, Fairfax also targeted Rajiv’s friends. This time round, not only Rajiv but almost the entire Congress party was enraged. Parliament had a curious debate. While the entire opposition defended Singh’s action, the treasury benches, on which he sat prominently, accused him of nothing short of treachery. Singh lost no time in hitting back. Rajiv had repeatedly and proudly announced that he had eliminated all middlemen in defence deals, and had warned all arms suppliers that employment of any agent by them would invite instant disqualification. However, at his desk in the defence ministry, Singh found the proof to contradict Rajiv’s boast. It was a top-secret telegram from the Indian ambassador in West Germany to the effect that an agent was paid commission for the purchase of two submarines from HDW. Singh immediately ordered an inquiry and sent the file in a double-sealed cover to the prime minister rather late in the evening. While doing so, he took care to make a public announcement of the inquiry. Evidently, Rajiv did not see the file sent to him during the night and, therefore, became aware of what Singh had done from newspapers the next morning. This was too much for him. The fat was well and truly in the fire. Singh had to resign and was later expelled from the party.

That morning, I accidentally ran into a former naval officer who had left the service rather early to join the more lucrative arms trade. He told me that Singh’s move was of “little consequence. Please wait a week and see what happens on April 16”. I don’t know how he could forecast it, but exactly on the date he had mentioned, Swedish radio broke the story of the “Bofors bribes”. It is needless to add that it hit political Delhi with the force of a mini-nuke. Rajiv made things worse for himself by dismissing the Swedish radio report as a “foreign conspiracy to destabilise India”. Though the beneficiaries of the Bofors money were never identified, let alone meted out their just desserts, the scandal itself dragged on until very recently. However, it is no exaggeration to say that this affair was the watershed in Rajiv’s political career. It shattered the most shining part of his image as “Mr Clean” and a man of integrity. Indeed, up to April 16, 1987, in the eyes of his countrymen, Rajiv could do no wrong; after that date, he could do nothing right.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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