Friday 19 July 2013

An Italian stains three Indian PMs (PO)

M D Nalapat
Friday, July 19, 2013 - Last week, Ottavio Quatrocchi, who for decades was in India as the representative of Italy’s Snam Progetti industrial conglomerate, passed away. He was very successful in winning contract after contract for the company from the 1970s onwards, especially in the state-controlled fertiliser industry. When Quatrocchi entered a government office,even Secretaries to Government used to quake in their boots, aware that the Italian could either boost or damage their careers. Those who helped him get juicy contracts got promoted while the few who opposed the many concessions given to Snam and other Italian companies suffered. Ottavio Quatrocchi and his wife Maria being from Italy, and in Delhi at a time when there were few from that country resident in that city, it was not surprising that Rajiv Gandhi’s Italian wife Sonia got to know them, or that the two families became close to each other socially. In India, anything connected with the Nehru family is covered by a veil of secrecy maintained by succesive governments, so there are few records of the contact between Indira Gandhi’s son and daughter-in-law with Quatrocchi and his wife Maria.

These days, those close to the presiding matriarch of the Nehru family, Sonia Gandhi, claim that neither she nor Rajiv was in any way close to the Quatrocchis. That the Italian and his wife were just acquaintances. They deny reports that Ottavio, Rajiv, Maria and Sonia met frequently in India, the UK and Italy, and that their families went on holidays together. If it was not his closeness to Rajiv and Sonia, it must have been his magnetic personality that worked such miracles for Ottavio Quatrocchi, enabling him to get file after file cleared so that his principals landed juicy contracts. Although a stranger to the defense trade, Mr Q was chosen by Bofors to be a commission agent in the howitzer deal that company had with the Government of India, a deal that netted him millions of dollars in commission. What he did was obscure, but Bofors landed the contract, to the anger of the French competitors.

That French companies are masters in information and disinformation in furtherance of their commercial interests is known to every serious analyst in India, and it was not long before items began to appear in the international and the national press about alleged kickbacks being paid to top politicians and officials in India to grab the contract. If this were true, it would hardly be a surprise. Bribes are the norm rather than the exception in government contracts in India, especially those involving large sums of money, such as defense or energy deals. Indeed, there are credible sources who claim that a percentage of every dollar that is paid by certain companies for importing crude oil into India gets transferred to secret bank accounts operated by nominees of a powerful political family in the country. However, an examination of the tax returns filed by the members of this family shows that their annual income is less than the cost of a month’s foreign travel by them, in a context where some members of the family travel abroad on an average of twenty-seven times each year. Of course, no details of such travel (and the places of stay) to Dubai, London, New York and Bangkok are ever furnished by any government in India. Politicians in the country are unlike those in Pakistan, who go after each other. Here, they each protect the other while publicly professing to expose them.

Manmohan Singh, who is known to be personally honest in a government steeped in bribery, is no exception. Indeed, the upright PM now seeks to roll back the Right to Information Act so as to make it more rather than less difficult for ordinary citizens to access information about state shenanigans. Honesty is of zero value to the citizen unless the PM can enforce it across his government, a task that Manmohan Singh has failed to do.

Coming to Ottavio Quatrocchi and his mysterious power over successive Prime Ministers of India, perhaps owing to the natural charm that is present in most Italians, on July 29,1993 then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao personally intervened to enable Quatrocchi to flee the country despite being a subject of enquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation. This columnist knew the Prime Minister (and let it be confessed, admired him in many respects),and he spoke to him about Mr Q, pointing out that it would be wrong to allow a man considered to be at the heart of illicit deal-making in India to leave Delhi for London en route to Milan. The Prime Minister mentioned that a powerful politician had sent a lady Minister of State to meet him with the promise that (the politician) “would forever be an ardent backer” of Mr Rao, should he allow Mr Q to escape. The PM had made up his mind.

Flash forward ten years, to the period when BJP stalwart A B Vajpayee was Prime Minister. A court in Malaysia was hearing the extradition request of the Central Bureau of Investigation (an agency more political in its functioning than any political party). While the hearing was going on, this columnist was having lunch in Bangalore’s West End hotel with a high official from Malaysia, there to visit a friend. When he spoke about Mr Q finally being forced to come back to India, the high official laughed. “Do you know that Quatrocchi’s lawyers are preparing the briefs for the other side? That they are in close touch with each other? There is no chance that he will lose the case”. The official went on to allege that Mr Q was boasting that Prime Minister Vajpayee himself had sent a private assurance that “no harm would be allowed to come to him”. Hopefully, the Malaysian official was either not telling the truth or had been the victim of rumours. To believe that Vajpayee or his Law Ministry would so subvert the course of justice so as to save Quatrocchi strains credulity. However, clearly the CBI lawyers botched up their case, for evidence that had been found compelling by a Swiss court was rejected by the Malaysian judge. By 2003, Quatrocchi was able to leave Malaysia,a free man. Had he brought back Ottavio Quatrocchi, Prime Minister Vajpayee would have been a hero to civil society in India.Instead, many began to believe that Mr Q had been deliberately let off, whatever be the truth or otherwise behind such a perception. The whiff of impropriety that wafted over Team Vajpayee led to the BJP’s defeat the next year, at the hands of the Congress Party. Mr Q had felled yet another politician.

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