Did Arun Jaitley do enough to investigate the Bofors scam?

With lawyers like Arun Jaitley at his service, expectations were high that as prime minister, VP Singh would determinedly pursue the Bofors allegations. BCCL
06 May, 2019

In a tweet posted on 5 May, the union finance minister Arun Jaitley asked why the Congress president Rahul Gandhi was “so disturbed if integrity issues of the Rajiv Gandhi Government are raised?” Jaitley was referring to an earlier exchange between Rahul and Narendra Modi—on 4 May, during a rally in Uttar Pradesh, the prime minister said that Rajiv was termed “mister clean” but his life ended as “bhrashtachari number one”—or corrupt number one. Modi was alluding to the Bofors scam during Rajiv’s tenure as prime minister. The next day, Rahul tweeted, “The battle is over. Your Karma awaits you. Projecting your inner beliefs about yourself onto my father won’t protect you.”

Later that day, Jaitley posted a series of tweets in response to Rahul, noting that several questions remained about the details of the Bofors scam, and demanded answers for the same from the Congress. In the following extract from The Caravan’s May 2015 profile of Jaitley, Praveen Donthi reports that a three-member investigative team, which included Jaitley, failed to bring any evidence of wrongdoing against Rajiv. Donthi further reports that according to Sten Lindström, the former head of the Swedish police, the investigation team had even implicated the actor Amitabh Bachchan, who was known to be close to Rajiv, in the case. In fact, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has remained suspicious of Jaitley due to his role in the Bofors investigation and its failure to bring forth a case against Rajiv Gandhi.

In 1987, Jaitley was involved in a series of legal matters related to interactions between the Enforcement Directorate, under former finance minister VP Singh, and Fairfax, an American detective agency that had allegedly been hired to investigate the illegal stacking of black money overseas. In March 1987, Jaitley and Jethmalani successfully defended S Gurumurthy, an RSS ideologue and Goenka’s financial advisor, from suspicions of passing classified information to Fairfax, soon after Gurumurthy wrote a series of articles in the Indian Express against the Congress and Reliance. A commission headed by two Supreme Court judges was appointed to investigate Singh, by then defence minister, who was on the outs with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for his relentless pursuit of tax evaders, including Congress-friendly companies such as Reliance. Singh resigned from his ministerial post, quit the Congress Party and hired for his defence Karanjawala, who told me, “Arun also used to advise him.”

The next month, in April, the tide turned against the Congress when news broke that the Swedish armaments firm Bofors had allegedly paid Gandhi kickbacks to broker a deal worth $1.3 billion with the Indian government. That summer, as the Fairfax probe continued and the Bofors scandal raged Jethmalani went on the offensive with a series of front-page Indian Express articles interrogating Gandhi. According to Nalini Gera’s 2009 book Ram Jethmalani: The Authorized Biography, he was helped in this endeavour by Gurumurthy, Arun Shourie and several BJP members, “especially Arun Jaitley.”

Jaitley contributed outside the courtoom too. Riding the wave of the Bofors scandal, in December 1989, VP Singh led the Janata Dal to power and became prime minister of the BJP-supported National Front government. India Today gave part of the credit for the dramatic improvement in the BJP’s election tally—from two seats in 1984, to 86 in 1989—to Jaitley. “The former student leader ensured the flow of funds, and masterminded the BJP’s publicity campaign,” India Today reported. (Jaitley’s college friend, Prabhu Chawla, was by then a senior editor at the magazine.)

Jaitley, then 37, was made an additional solicitor general. Karanjawala said Jaitley “was a great favourite” of Singh’s. “I might have played a small catalyst,” he said. To facilitate this appointment, he was promoted to senior advocate through the Delhi High Court almost overnight, which catapulted his legal career, according to the senior lawyer Dushyant Dave, who shared office space with Jaitley. Karanjawala said that Mukul Rohatgi, the current attorney general, was “one of our closest friends” and “had a role in that.”

With lawyers like Jaitley at his service, expectations were high that as prime minister, Singh would determinedly pursue the Bofors allegations. In January 1990, an investigative team consisting of Jaitley, the former Enforcement Director Bhure Lal, and the CBI deputy inspector-general MK Madhavan, made high-profile visits to Switzerland and Sweden to investigate the matter. Jaitley had his first prominent national appearance when photographs of the team were splashed across the newspapers.

But eight months later, there were no results. A critical MP, quoted in an India Today article, remarked that if the team “continued their investigations abroad, they would soon be entitled to NRI status.” Still, in the years that followed, Jaitley often brought up his participation in the investigation to burnish his credentials. But in 2012, Sten Lindström, the former head of the Swedish police who had leaked key Bofors documents to the journalist Chitra Subramaniam, spoke out against the team, claiming that it had actually “muddied the waters” of the investigation.

Lindström explained that while Subramaniam’s reports only mentioned five Swiss bank accounts containing Bofors payoff money, the team planted the name of actor Amitabh Bachchan, Rajiv Gandhi’s close friend, as the man behind a sixth such account in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter. The paper issued a public apology after Bachchan won a libel case in the United Kingdom, claiming it was misled “in trusting information from persons directly involved in the investigations into the Bofors transaction on behalf of the Indian Government.”

Subramaniam, now the editor-in-chief of the online portal The News Minute, told me over email, “It was plantation time galore! Almost everybody and their cousin had a theory, a list, a name.” Over ten years of reporting from Geneva, Bern and Stockholm, “one saw how governments used and abused the information for their benefit, facts be damned,” she said, claiming she had been put under tremendous pressure to implicate Bachchan and aid in the government’s investigation.

Her refusal to do so provoked a spate of misogynistic and damning articles. A senior journalist I spoke to recalled that a Bombay tabloid, The Daily, insinuated that she and Bachchan were having an extramarital affair. “The Indian Express in turn is questioning her credibility and charging her with suddenly going off on a tangent ... under the influence of Amitabh Bachchan,” wrote Chawla and Tarun Tejpal in India Today, even after Bachchan had won the libel case. Subramaniam, who was “deeply disturbed” by the articles, told me, “A few years later I raised these concerns with Mr Jaitley” and “he was open and welcoming of my views.” She did not accuse Jaitley of spreading the rumours, but said “He did what was expected of him politically.”

This is an edited excerpt from “Talk of the Town,” Praveen Donthi’s May 2015 profile of Arun Jaitley.