Friday 22 October 2010

Will Manmohan Singh be forced to quit? (PO)

M D Nalapat

In the 1960s for over three decades, probably the most influential non-official individual resident in India was Ottavio Quatrocchi, an Italian who had the blunt demeanour of an Australian rather than the charm that the people of that ancient civilisation are justly known for. Nearly 70 key projects were sanctioned during this long period to companies that “Mr Q” was considered to favour, especially Snam-Progetti. Those officials who dared to sanction contracts to companies other than the few favoured by Quatrocchi found their careers in India ended, including Cabinet Secretary P K Kaul, who was shunted off to Washington before completing his term in office, after a contract was won by another company instead of Snam. The then Petroleum Secretary, A S Gill, who was in line to be Cabinet Secretary found his career at an end after this decision was taken,and the minister concerned was swiftly removed from his post, as were others who dared take decisions other than those believed to have the backing of “Mr Q” What the source of the power of this Italian fixer is remains obscure.

However, none of his political allies could save his career in India once his name was outed in the scandal involving the purchase of Bofors guns in 1986. A year later, Swedish radio claimed that about $65 million had been paid as bribes to get the contract (peanuts in this day and age), and the Swiss authorities established that “Mr Q” was one of the beneficiaries. The Central Bureau of Investigation asked that his passport be impounded. Instead, on the recommendation of the minister looking after the CBI, Quatrocchi was allowed to fly out of India on 29 July 1993 to the safety of Kuala Lumpur. Since then, he has depended on his family members to ensure that contact be retained with influential individuals in India, a task that they have done so well that even today, he is among the few who can “get almost anything done” through the Government of India, including ensuring the return of the money that the investigating authorities say was a bribe paid to secure the Bofors contract. While other governments seek to confiscate the money stashed illegally away by the powerful, the Manmohan Singh government returned it to “Mr Q” a few years ago.

Ottavio Quatrocchi was never questioned - much less prosecuted – by the Indian authorities about his shenanigans. He escaped from the country in 1993 because of a morally questionable decision taken by then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, who thought he would buy peace with “Mr Q”’s friends in the Congress Party by enabling his escape. Instead, within brief months after that fateful decision, Rao began to be subjected to a barrage of attacks from Quatrocchi’s friends in the Congress Party ,acting through senior leaders in the government. Narasimha Rao never recovered from that stain, for from then onwards, despite the fact that he liberalised the economy, brought some stability to Kashmir by fending off Bill Clinton’s repeated efforts to get India to relax its hold on the state, and established an economics-centred diplomacy in place of the Nehru construct that was based on pious platitudes. By 1994,Rao was under daily fire for the perception of corruption, with all kinds of suspicious characters coming out of obscurity to make allegations against him. After he was forced to resign as Prime Minister because of an election defeat caused by a rebellion led by followers of influential politicians known to be close to “Mr Q”, Narasimha Rao was in perpetual risk of going to jail, getting freed of this Damocles Sword (in the shape of criminal cases against him) only in the final year of his life. Those who knew him well saw for themselves the fear in his eyes at the prospect of jail, a fear that paralysed him in the final decade of his life.

The Commonwealth Games scandal is Manmohan Singh’s Quatrocchi moment. Will he follow the example of his old boss Rao and allow the VVIPs responsible for a scam that has been estimated to cost the taxpayer more than $4 billion in bribes to escape? If he does so, then Manmohan Singh will be finished as a credible Prime Minister. From the time that he allows the guilty of the Commonwealth Ganes to escape – should he do so - he will become the butt of ridicule and scandal the way Narasimha Rao was. After such public bludgeoning and umiliation, it is very likely that Congress President Sonia Gandhi will request the PM to resign, and replace him with someone known to be honest, such as Defense Minister A K Antony. Although Sonia’s first choice is Home Minister P Chidambaram - because of his total loyalty to her wishes - yet in an atmosphere where the Congress Party gets pushed back to the 1987-89 period when it was clouded in corruption charges, she may have no choice but to appoint the man known as “Saint Antony” for his financial integrity. Perhaps this would be followed by appointing Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee as President of India, after the present incumbent’s term concludes in two years time.

Should the PM-directed enquiry into the scams carried out during the Commonwealth Games preparation period fail to bring those actually guilty to justice, the reputation of Manmohan Singh for integrity would be affected. After such a lapse,even should he somehow manage to hang on to the Office of the Prime Minister, each month would bring personal attacks on him. After his eventual retirement, there is no doubt that he would follow Narasimha Rao in also having multiple

criminal charges filed against him, which he would have to fight all his life to stay clear of arrest and imprisonment. All this while the VVIPs actually responsible for siphoning off huge amounts of money get away. The officers close to him would also face criminal charges for being accessories or being negligent in safeguarding the public interest. It all looks like going the Narasimha Rao way of scandal and disgrace for a team that in fact is honest and sincere.

There is no doubt that the huge expenditure ( of around $ 9 billion) spent on the Games has been a platinum opportunity for many. An example is a pedestrian overbridge that was built at a cost of $2 million, which collapsed. The Indian army was asked by the PM to build a substitute, which it did at a cost of just $175,000. A list of the prices for items bought or hired by the organizers of the Games shows that in several instances, there was a 4000% markup over the prices charged to other customers by the companies involved. A week ago, a friend mentioned that to his knowledge, six container loads of currency had been smuggled across the Indian border so as to be sent onwards to Switzerland, and that this is just a “small” part of what a particular ruling party leader made from the Games.

These days, Delhi is filled with stories about how “Manmohan Singh is conducting an eyewash” in promising to investigate the scandal. Many are angry that the PM did nothing while this flood of public money was being spent, moving into action only after the media could ignore the rot no longer. Once reports began to appear in the foreign press about the many deficiencies in the organizing of the Commonwealth Games, Indian media outlets that are known to be nervous about annoying VVIPs began to focus attention on a few organizers, notably Suresh Kalmadi, the Congress Party bigwig who is the Indian Olympic Committee chief. Kalmadi is known to follow the military discipline of his youth in always checking his decisions with higher authority, but if the media are to be believed, he acted on his own in the spending of the Games cash. This is about as believable as saying that Dr A Q Khan ran his entire network without the participation of any state player, or what General Pervez Musharraf wanted the world to believe when he placed the hero of the Pakistan nuclear bomb under house arrest.

Thus far, no criminal cases have been filed against those responsible for the many tainted decisions taken during the runup to the Games. And because none of the records was taken into safekeeping for two months after the scandal first broke in the international and then national media, those in the know say that records have been erased, while others have been replaced with different versions. Computer disks have been cleaned up and the mainframes destroyed. All in all, the stately pace of Manmohan Singh’s investigation - carried out by a well-meaning but seemingly clueless Kashmiri septuagenarian - may mean that the guilty escape, which means that the full tumult of public opinion will fall on the head of the Prime Minister, who allowed the loot to go on for six years before waking up to its ramifications. Exactly as 1992-96 Prime Minister Narasimha Rao became damaged goods after allowing Ottavio Quatrocchi to escape from India on July 29,1993, so will Manmohan Singh be crippled after his enquiry turns out to be a farce. The way several VVIPs want it to be. On the other hand, if the guilty get punished, Manmohan Singh will enter the history books for fighting the corruption that has been a facet of life in India since the impecunious Robert Clive made a fortune from Bengal in two centuries and a half ago.

As things stand, the betting in Delhi is that the PM will be ineffective in conducting a probe, and will therefore be made to quit after becoming the butt of criminal charges. Should an honest man like Manmohan Singh pay such a high price - the loss of his reputation and his career - it would be a sad day for justice. Those eager for probity hope that the PM will ensure that the guilty get punished, if only just this once in a country where corruption is costing the economy more than 5% extra growth each year.

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