Did Arun Jaitley do enough to investigate the Bofors scam?

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

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.)

Praveen Donthi is a former deputy political editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: Elections 2019 Arun Jaitley Rajiv Gandhi Bofors scam Rahul Gandhi Narendre Modi Amitabh Bachchan Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh