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Four Into Two

Four Into Two

Author: M.J. Akbar
Publication: Asian Age
Date: February 25, 2007

Introduction: He has been sitting for years in his comfortable home in Milan, talking to media when he chose to do so, and no one from the Italian police ever interfered with his peace.

Do you know what Quattrocchi means in Italian? Four eyes. I have this from an extremely reliable source. Actually, the source isn't that exciting, but the information is correct. And what does Ottavio indicate?

The eighth. The Eighth Man with Four Eyes. This sounds as mysterious as something out of The Da Vinci Code, but let us just agree that even if Ottavio Quattrocchi, the Italian businessman accused in Bofors payoffs, had eight eyes instead of four he could not possibly have foreseen that he would be picked up in February 2007 by the Argentinian police in a barely-known province called Misiones in pursuit of an Interpol "red corner notice number A-44/2/1997".

He could be forgiven if he had begun to believe that he was now safe from the arm of Indian law, his money out of the freeze of British bank accounts. He has been sitting for years in his comfortable home in Milan, talking to media when he chose to do so, and no one from the Italian police ever interfered with his peace.

Doesn't Italy come under the jurisdiction of Interpol, or does Italy make an exception for specially favoured sons? If the warrant could lead to detention in Latin America, then what was Scotland Yard doing when the ageing Quattrocchi withdrew funds that had been frozen in his British bank accounts? Why did the Argentinians, who must be as indifferent to Indian politics as we are to the shenanigans in Buenos Aires, break the silent code that protected Quattrocchi from Interpol for so long? Was there someone in Delhi who tipped the Argentinians off?

These are grave matters, and let someone more competent than me search for answers.

There is always something amusing in the gravest of events, and I am not talking about the "Four Eyes" name.

My sympathies are with the police officer in the Central Bureau of Investigation who was told to cook up a reason for the mysterious 17-day delay between Quattrocchi's arrest and the release of the news by CBI. We know now that the matter went up, but obviously, to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, where it lay for 17 days before a decision could be taken on what to do. One option that was surely considered was whether the arrest could remain a secret, and the thirty-day period, during which a demand for extradition had to be made, be permitted to lapse. The vibrant Indian media had been fooled for 17 days; why not another 13? The risk of course was that if the story broke while Parliament was in session, and the government was found culpable of protecting as highly wanted a man as Quattrocchi, the session would have come to a halt. Dr Singh also surely knew that his personal credibility was on the line. He opted for transparency.

But how then to explain those 17 non-transparent days? I can see a CBI officer scratching his head very hard as he came up with two reasons. The first was that it took time to identify Quattrocchi. But these are days of a telephone and the Internet. A photograph can be transmitted instantly. Try again. The second round of head-scratching must have removed all traces of dandruff. Ah: the CBI could not find anyone to translate from the Spanish.

Narasimha Raoji! Where are you when we need you? There was a time when an Indian Prime Minister used to be fluent in Spanish, and now we cannot find someone competent to do a simple translation - not in Delhi, not in our mission in Argentina, not in the foreign office, not even in the language departments of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Questions of course will be raised in Parliament; and decibel levels could hit the ceiling. The government has surely formulated all the answers. The home minister, Shivraj Patil, or even the Prime Minister, will certainly assure the House that every effort will be made to bring Quattrocchi to trial in Delhi. The Opposition will milk Bofors again, as it has done often enough in the past. Somnath Chatterjee, now in the Speaker's chair, might even suffer from a twinge of nostalgia for the good old days when he used to thunder with increasing levels of moral indignation at Rajiv Gandhi. This will be the nth Parliament session to echo with the Bofors boom.

Unavoidable, I suppose, but I hope that Bofors does not obscure or even drive away a far more important issue, particularly since this is a Budget session. The country is angry about economic policy, and in particular about prices. Economic reform was launched by Narasimha Rao, continued by Atal Behari Vajpayee and pursued by Dr Manmohan Singh. The policy itself has acquired support across party lines, but there is a fundamental problem with its consequences that no one has had either the will or the time to address.

All change, or progress, tends to displace some section of the economic chain. Cotton factories, for instance, made the weaver either irrelevant or marginal. This is inevitable. The answer is not to stop new machinery in cotton mills, but to create a new economy around the displaced so that reasonably prosperous communities do not sink into impoverishment and despair. Democracy, as well as humanity, demands concern for the dispossessed. There is no trace of such concern in the much-vaunted economic reform. Voices are beginning to rise, as the poor begin to understand that the haves are driven by profits and share prices, not by notions of social justice. Anger from the forests is taking the form of Naxalite violence; anxiety from farmlands is turning into angry demonstrations against Special Economic Zones; the threat to food-sellers from the capital-driven malls is driving an agitation in Chennai. The fires are burning separately, but if Delhi continues to show an obstinate indifference, flame could touch flame to create a conflagration.

After more than half a decade of stability, prices of basic products have risen sharply. In such a climate, traders are happily raising prices of even those commodities that are not propelled upwards by forces out of their control. Elections have just taken place in Punjab and Uttarakhand; and prices were a deciding factor in the mood of the vote. There is an electoral Bofors waiting to explode in every marketplace in the country.

Prices do not rise because someone orders them to, but they do rise as a consequence of either policy decisions or the lack of control measures. For the present Central government, there is only one definition of success: the growth rate. It is a statistic that wins applause from those who do not have to worry about the price of onions. Monetary policy is now tied to just the growth objective. An overheated economy needs a harness, but a harness interferes with the high of a gallop. Our ruling class is in gallop mode, even if in the process it leaves the people behind. You might get away with this if India were not a democracy. But those who are being ignored have a vote, and fortunately for them, elections are now a continuous excitement. There is accountability around every corner.

This is going to be a high energy year, politically. Bofors has returned, literally from the blue. But this will be only the beginning. Election results from Punjab and Uttarakhand will come this week, and Uttar Pradesh has been set alight by Congress ham-handedness in its effort to subvert the law for political gain. It doesn't work. It did not work in Bihar, and will not work in Uttar Pradesh.

At the best of times you need an extra pair of eyes to survive in Delhi: this year, you might need eight. 2007 is an Ottavio year.

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