May 3, 2009 12:06:37 am
One of the memorable experiences from my years as a journalist is associated with the centenary celebrations of the Congress party in Mumbai in 1985. Covering the event as a reporter in the late Russy Karanjias daily newspaper had given me an opportunity to get better acquainted with the partys and Indias glorious pre-Independence history. Still vividly sketched in my mind is the frail figure of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan,the Frontier Gandhi who was a special guest at the celebrations. Known for his non-violent struggle against the British and also for his strong opposition to the partition of India,this Pushtun leaders deeds and words (O Pathans! Your house has fallen into ruin. Arise and rebuild it,and remember to what race you belong) carry a message even today.
This follower of Mahatma Gandhi from the land of the Pathans,then 95 years old,was in a wheelchair. But welcoming him graciously was another Gandhi,who,at 41,was already Indias Prime Minister. If Badshah Khan embodied the best ideals of the Congress movement from the pre-1947 era,Rajiv Gandhi personified the hope and idealism of a new generation,which had come to admire him as Mr Clean. Rajivs presidential address at the Congress centenary session must rank as one of the most important political speeches in the annals of independent India.
Political pundits were astonished at the candour with which Rajiv spoke about the ills that had corroded the Congress party after Independence. In a passage that hit out at power brokers within his own party,he said,Millions of ordinary Congress workers throughout the country are full of enthusiasm for the Congress policies and programmes. But they are handicapped,for on their backs ride the brokers of power and influence,who dispense patronage to convert a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy. They are enmeshing the living body of the Congress in their net of avarice. They are reducing the Congress organisation to a shell from which the spirit of service and sacrifice has been empted. How have we come to this pass?
What a sad irony that,within a couple of years after this stirring speech,Rajiv found himself at the centre of a controversy that quickly snowballed into independent Indias most explosive corruption scandal. More disturbingly,it soon became known that the leader who had lambasted power brokers in his party had somehow allowed a power broker,a foreigner at that,to operate with the patronage of his official residence. That power broker was Ottavio Quattrocchi,a Delhi-based Italian businessman,who,thanks to his close association with the Prime Ministers Italian wife,enjoyed privileged access to the most important address in the capital. This in-house Italian connection proved extremely costly for Rajiv. It embroiled him in the Bofors corruption scandal. The people of India who had given Rajivs Congress more that 400 MPs in the 1984 parliamentary elections,dethroned him by defeating his party in 1989.
It is a law of history that those who espouse high ideals are made to pay a higher price when what they practice violates what they preach. This is what happened to Rajiv Gandhi. But so strong is the influence that the Italian power broker has continued to wield at the highest level in the Congress party that 22 years after the Bofors scandal broke out,he still gets the party and its government to do his bidding. It is impossible to draw any other conclusion from the shocking disclosures,made in the investigative reports published in this newspaper last week.
The Congress leadership first assisted Quattrocchi to flee India in 1993,just a couple of days before he was required to appear before the Supreme Court. He later stated that he was not coming to India to face trial because I have no faith in Indias justice system. The person who made this arrogant and disparaging remark was publicly defended by Sonia Gandhi,who said in 1999,The CBI has said he is a suspect. But we have never seen the papers naming him in the deal. They should show the papers establishing that he is guilty. She had conveniently forgotten that four courts (three in India and one in Switzerland) had already established Quattorocchis involvement in the Bofors scandal.
But it was not enough for Quattrocchi to remain safely away from the long arm of Indias justice system. He wanted total freedom through an official burial of the Bofors investigation. And this is the wish that the UPA government granted him through a step-by-step subversion of justice. In 2006,it defreezed his account in a London bank. In 2007,after he was arrested in Argentina,the CBI put up such a marvelously collusive show that he escaped extradition to India. And now,with only a few weeks to go before its term ends,the UPA government has granted Quattrocchi,an absconder for 12 years,his wish. No less a person than Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has sprung to the defence of this scamster,further devaluing the high office he holds. If ever there was a case of government-assisted acquittal without trial of an accused,it is seen in the Congress leaderships brazenly executed Operation Save Quattrocchi.
In the past few days,Congress spokespersons,ably assisted by their friends in the media,have been heard asking,Why is the opposition flogging this dead horse called Bofors? They are wrong. The Bofors case is not the horse that is dead. What has been flogged to death is a horse named Justice. It is painful to see that even the higher judiciary in India has remained a passive observer as this hapless horse has been done to death with the whole world watching.
My thoughts go back to the Congress centenary event. And the words of Rajiv Gandhi haunt me How have we come to this pass?
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