Rajiv Gandhi and the muddlemen of Indian defence

Last Updated: Mon, Apr 08, 2013 10:16 hrs

The revelation that former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi might have been a facilitator for a Swedish defence firm is a minor political quake.

The information comes from declassified American government communication called the Kissinger Cables.

The Kissinger Cables have been made available to WikiLeaks. The Hindu, a newspaper headquartered in Chennai, published the contents of some of the cables as part of its editorial collaboration with WikiLeaks.

Some facts first.

The defence middleman is an outlaw in India – UPA1 banned them in 2004 soon after forming the government.

India gets 70% of its arms through import – which means Indian firms are not good enough.

India doesn’t allow arms export for reasons of ethics.

Even if an Indian firm made weapons worth buying, other nations can’t buy from India because New Delhi doesn’t want to be part of an arms race.

These are the basic parameters of Indian defence.

Within these guidelines, India has to get a fix on protecting 15,000+ kilometres of land frontier, 7,500+ km of coastline, 2 million+ km of exclusive economic zone, airspace, island territories and offshore installations.

Whatever India does, it can’t satisfy everyone.

Things would’ve been a little different in the 1970s, around when Rajiv Gandhi is said to have been a defence middleman.

Why are we uneasy about something that happened in the mid-1970s?

Here’s why. Prime ministers are people we trust. We rely on them to protect us and to improve our lives.

We blanch at the thought that a prime minister might have been a broker.

We do so because we are suddenly unsure about the instincts of a person we banked on as prime minister.

One of the cables published by The Hindu says: “Swedish Emboff has informed us that main Indian negotiator with Swedes on Viggen at New Delhi end has been Mrs. Gandhi's oler [as spelt in the cable] son, Rajiv Gandhi. Latter's only association with aircraft industry (to our knowledge) has been as pilot for Indian Airlines and this is first time we have heard his name as entrepreneur.”

A paragraph in another cable says: “The Swedes here have also made it quite clear they understand the importance of family influences in the final decision in the fighter sweepstakes. Our colleague describes Ranjiv [as spelt in the cable] Gandhi in flattering terms, and contends his technical expertise is of a high level.

“This may or may not be. Offhand we would have thought a transport pilot not the best expert to rely upon in evaluating a fighter plane, but then we are speaking of a transport pilot who has another and perhaps more relevant qualification.”

The deal that Rajiv Gandhi was said to be facilitating didn’t come through. Indira Gandhi chose a British firm she didn’t originally intend to, according to the cables.

That is not so much the point.

We now wonder whether Rajiv Gandhi was The Great Hope we saw him as.

To be real, all Indian prime ministers so far have come from the system. They were all status quoists barring, to an extent, VP Singh.

Nehru doesn’t count here because he was the first and he thus oversaw many precedents.

Of the rest, there were no outsiders. Insiders don’t seek to overhaul systems. They simply look to leave their imprint with a little fine-tuning here and there.

Rajiv Gandhi was an insider. Whether he was a middleman, we now have to make our conclusions.

This brings us to Rajiv Gandhi’s heirs Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka.

Legally, assets and liabilities are passed on to heirs. This tends to happen in politics as well.

To that extent, Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka might have to deal with the impact of the WikiLeaks-The Hindu revelations.

However, people are not responsible for what happened before they were around.

Rajiv Gandhi would’ve been 31 when the cable was sent saying he was negotiating a defence deal. Sonia was married to him for seven years by then and Rahul and Priyanka were born.

That by itself doesn’t make them responsible for what Rajiv might have done professionally.

Therefore, attacking the current Congress leadership for events from 1975 of a largely unknown nature – until now – is not kosher.

But Rajiv became prime minister nine years after the cable was sent.

Eleven years after the Viggen cable was sent, the Bofors scandal first became known in a news broadcast over Swedish radio.

New Delhi paid Swedish arms firm Bofors $285 million for the supply of 410 155mm Howitzer field guns.

It was reported that bribes were paid to middleman Ottavio Quattrocchi for enabling the deal.

The Bofors scandal created enough doubt for Rajiv to be defeated in the first General Election after it was reported on.

The doubt was that Rajiv might have got at least some of the money because Quattrocchi was an alleged friend of Sonia.

The Delhi High Court quashed the charges of bribery against Rajiv Gandhi in 2004.

Political scandals in India take long to fade.

We don’t know how the Viggen cable will play out for the Congress now.

We don’t know if Viggen shaped any of Rajiv’s political and professional instincts.

We don’t know much about any of our politicians because Indians are traditionally wary of investigating public figures.

We seem to be in need of myth.

Until we know all there is to know about our politicians, we can’t rest.

What we do know, however, is that the middleman needs to be a formal, transparent creature.

NDA2 had initiated a drive to register defence agents in India. It didn’t succeed because the middlemen didn’t want to disclose their financial history.

They preferred to stay hidden.

There seem to be a few basic ways to go about our defence needs.

1. Make it mandatory for Indian firms to make defence equipment and weapons indigenously.

2. Make it mandatory for them to improve technology to global standards.

3. Allow Indian firms to export arms.

4. Buy arms only from firms that transfer technology within 12 months of a deal being signed.

5. Enable only registered brokers [or consultants as they like to call themselves] to work with the defence ministry.

6. Make it mandatory for these brokers to declare assets every March.

7. Set minimum and maximum percentages for commission on deals.

8. And then, when all systems are in place [in a year], remove the ban on middlemen.

For, India’s defence needs will only cost more every year. We are never going to be a nation without an army.

There are about 20 countries without formal armies, like Granada, Costa Rica, Andorra and so on. They have deals with other nations to protect them.

We will never be like that.

Dig we must, into Rajiv Gandhi’s role as facilitator for defence deals. Even if they’re from the past.

We must also investigate the contents of the cable on George Fernandes from November 1975.

This is what part of it says: “Frg labor attache Manfred Turlach met opposition leader George Fernandes on or about Nov 1 in New Delhi. Fernandes, president of the socialist party and labor leader, is probably the most sought after member of the opposition, and there is a warrant out for his arrest. He has been underground since the June 26 declaration of the Emergency.

“According to Fernandes, there are about 300 persons working with him engaged in sabotage activities. Many were said to be trained in the use of explosives. Fernandes claimed to have already blown up two railway bridges in the south and a bridge between Bombay and Poona.

“The group also claims responsibility for setting fires in the Bombay docks.

“Fernandes said the Naxalities were responsible for the fire in the LIC building in Madras last July. He claimed that the Naxalites and other opposition groups including his own were now working together.

“In addition, there has been a revival of groups such as the Indian National Army [INA] which engaged in violent activities prior to Independence.

“Fernandes appealed to Turlach for frg financial support. Turlach replied that he disapproved of Fernandes' strategy of violence. Fernandes told Turlach that he was even now prepared to accept money from the CIA and asked Turlach if he could suggest CIA contacts.”

Fernandes hated the Nehru-Gandhis. He had scorn for them in public, bile in private.

Who is guiltier? Rajiv, who apparently tried to facilitate a defence deal? Or Fernandes, who apparently wanted American money to blow up important Indian structures?

We just don’t know enough.

All we feel is unease. For that, we need to thank The Hindu and WikiLeaks.

Also by the author:

Silly Vijender, sillier state

Parliament resolutions: What you need to know

The boxer, the drug dealer, and the yarn

Rahul Gandhi and the singletons in Indian politics

To hang a man: How to read Afzal Guru's death

Vijay Simha is an independent journalist and sobriety campaigner based out of New Delhi. His most recent journalism assignment was as executive editor with The Financial World, New Delhi, and tehelka.com.

He was a guest on Season 1 of the popular Indian TV show Satyamev Jayate, hosted by Aamir Khan.

Vijay blogs here and may be contacted at vijsimha@gmail.com.