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Gandhi family asked to come clean over lucrative arms deal

Kickback allegations over late Indian prime minister's alleged involvement in arms deal resurface after publication of US state department cables. Samanth Subramanian and Suryatapa Bhattacharya report

Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi (right) and her son Rajiv (left) at a Congress Party meeting in New Delhi in early 1984.
Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi (right) and her son Rajiv (left) at a Congress Party meeting in New Delhi in early 1984.

NEW DELHI // The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has called on the family of Rajiv Gandhi to divulge what it knows about the late prime minister's alleged involvement in a lucrative arms deal in the 1970s.

The demand follows the publication yesterday of declassified US state department cables, one of which described Gandhi as the "main Indian negotiator" for the Swedish firm Saab-Scania in its ultimately unsuccessful bid to sell India its Viggen fighter aircraft while his mother Indira Gandhi was prime minister.

Rajiv Gandhi, who served as premier from 1984 to 1989, was assassinated in 1991. He was the husband of Sonia Gandhi, currently the president of the Congress party, which heads the coalition government in India and which has been hit by a string of corruption scandals ahead of general elections next year.

Some of the contents of the cables, part of a tranche of previously confidential US government cables and reports compiled by Wikileaks, were published yesterday by The Hindu newspaper.

The cable implicating Rajiv Gandhi in the arms deal, written by the US Embassy in New Delhi and dated October 21, 1975, cites the Swedish Embassy as the source of information about the late premier's involvement in negotiations to sell 50 Viggen fighters to the Indian air force for between US$4 million (Dh14.7m) and $5m per aircraft. It states that there is no additional information available to either confirm or deny the information.

Prakash Javadekar, a spokesman for the BJP, urged the Gandhi family, the government and the Congress party to reveal any information it has about the arms deal and Rajiv Gandhi's involvement in it.

"All the documents should be made public, and we want the government, Congress and the Gandhi family to come clean," Mr Javadekar said.

The Congress party immediately challenged the trustworthiness of Wikileaks, the whistle-blower website founded by Australian political activist Julian Assange. The cables cited by The Hindu are believed to be from among the latest batch of documents released by the website yesterday.

"The credibility of Wikileaks is questionable … We don't give importance to the allegations and the cables," the party said.

At the time of the Viggen deal, Rajiv Gandhi was not active in politics. Instead, he worked as a commercial pilot for the national carrier Indian Airlines. "This is the first time we have heard his name as entrepreneur," the October 1975, cable reads.

Another cable, from February 6, 1976, said that Sweden was optimistic about the sale.

"The Swedes here have also made it quite clear they understand the importance of family influences in the final decision in the fighter sweepstakes," the cable reads.

The cable expresses doubt about whether Rajiv Gandhi, as a commercial pilot, possesses the technical expertise to evaluate a fighter plane but points out that he has "another and perhaps more relevant qualification."

An earlier cable, sent on January 16, 1976, relayed the French Embassy's theory that it would be Indira Gandhi "alone who will make the final decision, which the French assert will be on [political] grounds".

The October 21, 1975, cable said a Swedish diplomat had "expressed irritation at the way Mrs Gandhi is personally dominating negotiations, without involvement of Indian Air Force officers".

Bharat Karnad, a security analyst at the Centre for Policy Research a New Delhi think tank, said it was impossible to say for certain whether Rajiv Gandhi "played a role" in the fighter negotiations.

"I'm sure the opposition is going to jump on it", but the cables are wrong, Mr Karnad said.

He questioned the diplomatic assessments of the Gandhis' roles in the negotiations as cited in the cables.

"Even assuming Rajiv Gandhi was involved, his middleman status didn't help because the deal didn't come through," he added.

India considered three other fighter aircraft besides Saab-Scania's Viggen - Britain's Jaguar, France's Mirage, and the Soviet Union's MiG.

The contract was won by Jaguar, even though the October 1975 cable had mentioned that Indira Gandhi had made a "personal decision not to purchase British Jaguar because of her prejudices against British".

Saab-Scania was forced by the United States to pull out of the race because, as a November 14, 1975 cable from the US New Delhi embassy noted, the Viggen fighter contained "a large number of parts and components of US origin which are therefore subject to [US government] control in third-party sales".

As prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi was implicated in another arms deal controversy involving a Swedish company, Bofors AG, which was accused of paying $12m in kickbacks to Congress politicians to secure a $285m contract for Howitzer guns.

A 1987 issue of the news weekly India Today noted that the Bofors contract "also benefited a number of other Swedish companies, including Saab-Scania for the tow vehicles".

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

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