A callow prime minister, a global superstar, shadowy international arms dealers, crafty middlemen and nosy journalists were the dramatis personae of a real life political thriller that played out in New Delhi, Stockholm, London and New York over a quarter century ago.
Of all the names crowding India's biggest and most notorious arms purchase scandal at that time, the most incongruous ones were those of actor Amitabh Bachchan and his younger brother Ajitabh.
Through a series of complicated innuendoes and stage whispers it was let known to obliging journalists that the Bachchans, particularly Ajitabh, were among the recipients of the Rs.640 million (about $53 million at the mid-1980s exchange rate of Rs. 12 to a dollar) Bofors gun bribery payoff. The actor himself, stung stiff by the sheer absurdity of the campaign against him and his brother, reacted with ferocious contempt and went to remarkable lengths to clear his and his family's name.
On Jan 31, 1990, the Dagens Nyheter, a Swedish daily newspaper, reported that Swiss authorities had frozen an account belonging to Ajitabh Bachchan into which Bofors commissions were transferred from a coded account. That story was vigorously denied and challenged by the Bachchans, eventually compelling the paper to retract, apologise and settle saying they had been misled by Indian government sources.
With former police chief of Sweden, Sten Lindstrom, asserting in an interview with the media watchdog website The Hoot that the Bachchans' names were "planted" by Indian investigators, a can of worms has been reopened on how the actor and his family were victimised in a vicious political game. Despite Lindstrom's revelations, India is none the wiser about the real motivations behind dragging the actor's name into it. At the time the most educated guess, which endures until today, was that prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was being attacked politically via the soft target of the Bachchans.
The Bachchans' efforts to clear their name included a libel lawsuit against the former avatar of this wire service, India Abroad News Service, and its New York-based parent India Abroad Publications.
The suit by the Bachchans was filed and won in a British high court, enforcing its award on the New York-based India Abroad Publications and its owner, the late Gopal Raju. It became one of America's most cited cases of the freedom of speech and the press under the First Amendment of the US constitution, widely written about and supported in the Supreme Court of New York by mainstream American media as amici curiae that included the New York Times, Associated Press, Time Warner, CBS, Association of American Publishers, Reader's Digest, etc.
The cause of the libel suit against the publication and the wire service was the fact that the latter picked up and distributed the story originally appearing in the Dagens Nyheter, claiming that the Bachchans were the custodians of some of the bribe money. Although the Swedish newspaper settled the claim, India Abroad chose not to settle. It did report the Dagens Nyheter apology and settlement.
However, Raju, a gutsy Indian American publisher, decided to fight the case on the basic contention that publications and wire services do routinely pick up and transmit news stories in good faith and cannot, by the virtue of just that action, be held liable on the ground of malice.
While the British court granted the Bachchans a victory in the libel suit and awarded them 40,000 pounds in damages, Raju cited the newspaper company's New York location to invoke the First Amendment protection against the enforcement of a British judgment on an America publication. A New York court ruled in favour of Raju and in the process set up a frequently cited legal precedent in America.
At the heart of the Bachchans versus India Abroad Publications case was the difference in the way libel is legally viewed and enforced in Britain, where the burden of proof is on those seen to be causing it, and America, where the burden of proof is on the party claiming to be aggrieved.
India Abroad's victory in New York was not so much about the Bachchans' inability to collect the damages as about the principle of the freedom of speech guaranteed under the First Amendment in America and how its interpretation varies fundamentally from Britain. It is regarded as a landmark judgment.
There was a perception in America's legal community at the time of the lawsuit being an instance of "libel tourism" where those with means file libel lawsuits in countries where the libel laws are weighed against the media. Equally, there were those who thought that the Bachchans were justified in making an example of India Abroad and the wire service, IANS.
This writer, who interviewed Bachchan in the aftermath of the controversy, was witness to his profound chagrin at having been dragged into the sordid affair simply because he and Rajiv Gandhi were childhood friends and their families had longstanding ties. While the Bachchans have emerged unscathed, albeit after such a long time, for Gandhi's family Lindstrom's comments are equivocal. "There was no evidence that he (Gandhi) had received any bribe. But he watched the massive cover-up in India and Sweden and did nothing," he has been quoted as saying.
Of course, Lindstrom's disclosures are not seen as particularly remarkable because a lot of what he says has been claimed in some form or the other over the years, including that Gandhi himself did not benefit. For the Bachchans, its importance comes from the fact that for the first time there is an authoritative face other than their own behind the assertion of their innocence. It may have been too long in coming but it does offer them a much-deserved closure.