Karela Fry

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The Bofors case revisited

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The former head of Swedish police, Sten Lindstrom, led the Swedish investigations into the Bofors-India gun deal of the 1980s. Now, 25 years after the events, he revealed himself as the whistleblower who leaked information to Chitra Subramaniam, then a journalist with the Hindu. Yesterday, Chitra Subramaniam-Duella’s interview of Sten Lindstrom appeared yesterday in The Hoot.

Lindstrom talks about the ethics of selling arms, very relevant again, when an arms race is developing in Asia:

Bofors was a good company. Their products were good. Unfortunately in the race to expand business, they resorted to illegal shipments, bribery and corruption. They claimed a tax-deduction for the money they had to pay as bribes.

In my long career as a police officer I have seen many things. What was shocking in the whole Bofors-India saga was the scale of political involvement in Sweden breaking all rules including those we set for ourselves. Bofors was a wake-up call for most Swedes who thought corruption happens only far away in Africa, South America and Asia. There was disbelief and hurt when they found that some of their top politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen were no better than others. The $1.3 billion deal with India for the sale of 410 field howitzers, and a supply contract almost twice that amount was the biggest arms deal ever in Sweden. Money marked for development projects was diverted to secure this contract at any cost. Rules were flouted, institutions were bypassed and honest Swedish officials and politicians were kept in the dark. Our former Prime Minister Olof Palme was talking peace, disarmament and sustainable development globally, while we were selling arms illegally, including to countries that were on our banned list.

Lindstrom’s story shows all successive Indian governments in a bad light, and ties up with the themes of the India Against Corruption movement:

Q – How did the India angle in Bofors crop-up?

A – It was an accident. We were conducting several search and seize operations in the premises of Bofors and their executives. I have some experience in this area, so I asked my team to take everything they could find. In the pile were one set of documents to Swiss banks with instructions that the name of the recipient should be blocked out. An accountant doing his job asked why anonymity was necessary since the payments were legal. Bofors was unable to explain and then we found more and more documents leading to India.

Q- Quarter century later, any reflections on why Rajiv Gandhi’s name came up?

A– There was no evidence that he had received any bribe. But he watched the massive cover-up in India and Sweden and did nothing. Many Indian institutions were tarred, innocent people were punished while the guilty got away. The evidence against Ottavio Quattrrocchi was conclusive. Through a front company called A.E. Services, bribes paid by Bofors landed in Quattrocchi’s account which he subsequently cleaned out because India said there was no evidence linking him to the Bofors deal. Nobody in Sweden or Switzerland was allowed to interrogate him.

Ardbo was terrified about this fact becoming public. He had hidden it even from his own marketing director Hans Ekblom who said marketing middlemen had a role, but not political payments. Ardbo was also concerned about the role of Arun Nehru who had told Bofors in 1985 that his name and Rajiv Gandhi’s name should not appear anywhere. As the stories began to appear, Ardbo knew what I knew. He had written in his notes that the identity of N (Nehru) becoming public was a minor concern but at no cost could the identity of Q (Quattrocchi) be revealed because of his closeness to R (Rajiv Gandhi).

Under pressure from Swedish and Indian media and with the threat of a cancellation of the contract hanging over them, Bofors sent its top executives to India with the one-point task of giving out the names. Nobody of any consequence received them.

Q– What was your experience with the Indian investigators?

A – The only team I met in early 1990 damaged the seriousness of my work and the media investigation. I met them on a courtesy call. They were in the process of filing a letter-rogatory (LR) in Switzerland. Without an official request from Switzerland, Sweden could not intervene. They gave me a list of names to pursue including the name of Amitabh Bachchan. They also told me they did not trust you entirely because you had refused to link the Bachchans to the kickbacks. During that trip to Sweden, the Indian investigators planted the Bachchan angle on DN. The Bachchan’s took them to court in the UK and won. DN had to apologise and they said the story had come from Indian investigators. I was disappointed with the role of many senior journalists and politicians during that period. They muddied the waters.

Can you imagine a situation where no one from India met the real investigators of the gun deal? That was when we saw the extent to which everyone was compromised. Many politicians who had come to my office claiming they would move heaven and earth to get at the truth if they came to power, fell silent when they held very important positions directly linked to the deal.

Mr. N. Ram’s political affiliations are open. Lindstrom’s story seems to indicate that the Hindu was more interested in the politics than in the news:

Q – With time and distance, how do you view your leaks?

A – … The one and only visit by your former editor N. Ram of The Hindu to my office in whose presence I handed over the documents is a detail. I would have leaked the documents to you even if you had worked for any other newspaper.

The Hindu’s role in all this was that of a medium of communication. I met them because you insisted. I was disappointed. They published the documents as and when they wanted without any respect for the risks other people were taking to get the facts out.

The most explosive documents that involved the political payments were Ardbo’s notes and diary. The Hindu published them several months after they had them. In the meantime there was a serious difficulty. I got a message that my name was circulating in Delhi’s political circles as the whistleblower. This caused a lot of stress and difficulty for me. You will recall the month you were not allowed to call me while we investigated who leaked my name as the whistle-blower in India. There were consequences for me and my family. The Hindu seemed unconcerned.

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