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Foreign hands fill the Congress’s coffers

Author: A Surya Prakash
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: February 18, 2014
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/edit/foreign-hands-fill-the-congresss-coffers.html

While we still do not know if there are any VVIP passengers on the AgustaWestland gravy train, there’s certainly evidence to show that the Congress has taken the ‘foreign route' to raise funds since the 1980s

 Allegations of bribery and commissions in arms deals and such other huge international contracts surface as a matter of routine whenever the Congress is in power at the Centre. The latest scandal pertains to kickbacks in the Rs 3,700 crore deal with the Anglo-Italian firm AgustaWestland to buy 12 VVIP helicopters for the Indian Air force.

 Italian investigators who are probing the bribery and commissions angle in the deal have found a note written by the firm’s consultant to key middleman Guido Hashke which says Ms Sonia Gandhi is “the driving force” behind the deal. He provides a list of persons to be contacted and says the British High Commissioner in New Delhi must target people close to Ms Gandhi. The Union Government has since cancelled the deal, but questions relating to kickbacks — estimated at Rs 360 crore — remain. On the Indian side, the investigations are being carried out by the Central Bureau of Investigation, which has thus far named a former Air Force Chief, his brother and a few others in the First Information Report. We still do not know if there are any VVIP passengers on the AgustaWestland gravy train but we certainly have substantial evidence to show that the Congress has taken the ‘foreign route’ to raise funds since the return of Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister in 1980.

 BG Deshmukh, who was Cabinet Secretary when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister, provides us valuable insights into the way the Nehru-Gandhis relied more on foreign sources, both for party funds and their own security. In his book A Cabinet Secretary Looks Back, Deshmukh talks of the Bofors payoffs scandal and says that its genesis could be traced to the practice initiated by Indira Gandhi to collect funds for the Congress. In his view, collection of funds for the party was more transparent during the days of Jawaharlal Nehru when business houses were permitted to make open donations.

 When Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister, she realised that she was “in dire need of funds to fight elections to establish herself as the undisputed leader of the Congress Party”. In Maharashtra, she depended heavily on Rajni Patel and Vasantrao Naik to raise funds “and they did this by literally selling sheets of sea water in the Nariman Point area”. However, Indira Gandhi changed the way she collected funds for her party after she returned to power in 1980. According to Deshmukh, “She decided that a far better way to collect funds for the party was through claiming cuts from foreign deals”. He heard from his colleagues that “trusted senior officers” were posted in the Defence Ministry and the Department of Defence Production. Further, he was told that Sanjay Gandhi had summoned senior officers from certain ministries and instructed them on certain deals.

 Indira Gandhi’s new method of collecting party funds from foreign sources has been corroborated by two other persons who have held high office in the country — R Venkataraman, who was President, and BK Nehru, former Governor of Assam, Jammu & Kashmir, and Gujarat, and Indian Ambassador to the United States. In his book, My Presidential Years, Venkataraman refers to a conversation he had with JRD Tata after Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s statement in Parliament that neither he (Rajiv Gandhi) nor any member of his family had received any consideration for the Bofors deal. Tata told the President that while Mr Gandhi’s statement could be true, “it would be difficult to deny the receipt of commissions by the Congress Party”. Venkataraman said, “He (Tata) felt that since 1980, industrialists had not been approached for political contributions and that the general feeling among them was that the party was financed by commissions on (foreign) deals”.   

 BK Nehru, in his autobiography, refers to a conversation he had with Rajiv Gandhi after Sanjay Gandhi’s demise. He quotes Rajiv Gandhi as having said that “crores and unaccounted crores” had been collected for the party. But, Rajiv Gandhi was a changed man when he assumed office. Mr AP Mukherjee, former CBI Director, substantially corroborates the opinions of Deshmukh and Tata in his book Unknown facets of Rajiv Gandhi, Jyoti Basu and Indrajit Gupta. He recollects his conversation with Rajiv Gandhi at the Prime Minister’s residence in June 1989, at the height of the Bofors scandal, during which Rajiv Gandhi told him that a big all-India party like the Congress needed “substantial amounts of money” just for its routine administration and this requirement “assumes a huge proportion” on the eve of Assembly and/or parliamentary elections. “This leads to massive fund collections by important party functionaries, ministers and businessmen”. He discussed this problem with his colleagues and advisers and they said that commissions to middlemen should be banned “but the commissions to be given as a matter of routine practice by the suppliers of major defence materials could be pooled under the care of some non-Government entity which could be utilised solely for the purpose of meeting the inescapable expenses of the party”.

 Rajiv Gandhi further told Mr Mukherjee that such a step would prevent the collusive nexus between the middlemen, ministers, bureaucrats and also help the Government “do away with the quid pro quo relationship with some unscrupulous businessmen and equally unscrupulous politicians and bureaucrats.” Hence, he (Rajiv Gandhi) endorsed the same. Mr Mukherjee was Additional Director of CBI when this conversation took place. He became Director on October 31 that year, but was shifted out by the Janata Dal Government headed by VP Singh a few months hence. Later, the CBI acquired evidence to show that Bofors had remitted US$ 7.3 million to the Swiss Bank account of Maria and Ottavio Quattrocchi, close friends of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi.

 Last year, Wikileaks exposed a sensational telegram from the US Embassy in New Delhi to Washington, DC in October 1975, when India was under the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. This telegram said that US diplomats heard from their Swedish counterparts that Rajiv Gandhi was the middleman through whom the Swedes were trying to sell India the fighter aircraft made by Saab-Scania. The British Jaguar eventually won the deal, but Wikileaks’ allegation was that Rajiv Gandhi was an arms middleman before he became Prime Minister.

 With so much evidence, is it any surprise that consultants operating on behalf of AgustaWestland were advising middlemen to ‘target’ persons close to Ms Sonia Gandhi? The Congress president may well succeed, via the Union Government and its ‘caged parrot’ in containing investigations in India, but there are investigators and prosecutors in her land of birth who are in hot pursuit of the truth. What an irony!

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