The late Indian premier Rajiv Gandhi addresses a crowd in Uttar Pradesh during an election campaign rally in 1991, days before his assassination by a Sri Lankan Tamil separatist guerrilla leader. Photo: AFP

India’s Congress party is on the back foot after a TV channel raised new questions over the role of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the Bofors scandal, in which Swedish and Indian politicians were accused of receiving kicks from the Swedish manufacturer Bofors AB in an arms deal in the 1980s.

The disclosures were taken up in Parliament on Monday, with lawmakers demanding that the three decades-old case be reopened. The Swedish government and a former chief investigator, Sten Lindström, have expressed their willingness to cooperate with India in revisiting the case.

Lindström, now 71, alleged in an interview from Stockholm that Rajiv raised the possibility of payments with his Swedish counterpart, Olof Palme, on a flight in January 1986, two months before a deal was inked for India’s purchase of 410 155mm howitzer guns from Bofors.

Indian soldiers propel a Bofors gun during an Indian Army Exhibition in Calcutta, in 2005. Photo: AFP / Deshakalyan Chowdhury

Lindström, the “Swedish deep throat” who blew the whistle in 1988-89 by passing details of the investigation to Indian reporter Chitra Subramaniam Duella, told her in an interview aired on Sunday by the English-language channel Republic that former Bofors chief Martin Ardbo was with Rajiv and Palme on the plane. Ardbo, Lindström claims, revealed to him the details of the Rajiv-Palme conversation before his death in Sweden in 2004.

Lindström claims Ardbo told him the following:

  • That he had handled the kickbacks and that the payments to middlemen were much larger than the US$9.9 million reported by media
  • That he wanted to take his story to the grave as he feared the then Indian and Swedish governments would fall if the notes from his diary were revealed

Until now, the general perception in India was that Rajiv might well have been a beneficiary in the Bofors deal. Lindström’s revelations point to his being an instigator of the kickbacks.

Lindström’s interview came days after an Indian parliamentary committee asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to reopen the Bofors case.

The Delhi High Court dismissed proceedings in the case in 2005 since most of the accused – among them Rajiv, India’s former defense secretary S K Bhatnagar, Bofors agent Win Chaddha, and Ardbo ­­ – were dead.

Another accused, Ottavio Quattrocchi – an Italian businessman who was close to Rajiv through his Italian wife, Sonia Gandhi – died in Milan in 2013.

Until now, the general perception in India was that Rajiv might well have been a beneficiary in the Bofors deal. Lindström’s revelations point to his being an instigator of the kickbacks

Lindström’s disclosures rattled Congress in Parliament on Monday, with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi walking out of the House. Reacting to the report, Rahul said: “They have been raising it for thirty years, let them raise it for another 30 years.”

Rahul did not comment on the sealed boxes India received from Swiss banks in 1997 containing possible clues on the kickbacks. But angry MPs demanded the boxes be opened for investigators to get closer to the truth. The CBI is said never to have opened the boxes.

What still intrigues many is why Lindström took so long to reveal details of the Rajiv-Palme conversation. He could have done it after Ardbo’s death.

Lindström said no Indian investigator had contacted him in the past 30 years. In Sweden, the case was closed in early 1988. Knowing he could not rely on Swedish or Indian authorities to prosecute the case at that time, he passed what he knew on to Chitra.

Lindström said he is ready to cooperate with the Indian investigators and reveal all. A day after his disclosures, papers accessed by Republic revealed that Bofors team visiting India in 1987 refused to divulge the names of those involved, saying commercial secrecy could not be compromised. Bofors also allegedly threatened India by reminding it of the Rajiv-Palme talks before the deal.

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