New Delhi: India’s ruling Congress party could be headed for another deadlock in Parliament as opposition parties seized on disclosures by whistle-blower website WikiLeaks naming the late Rajiv Gandhi as a middleman for a Swedish fighter jet company in the 1970s before he became prime minister.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is already struggling to revive its credibility in the wake of a raft of corruption allegations that have hindered its ability to make or push critical policies.
Analysts say the WikiLeaks report has huge potential to embarrass the Congress in the run up to the general election next year and complicate relations with its partners.
Parliament is to reconvene on 22 April.
According to an American cable made public by WikiLeaks and published in The Hindu newspaper on Monday, Swedish firm Saab-Scania named Rajiv Gandhi as the “the main Indian negotiator” with them for the purchase of 50 Viggen fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force.
“Latter’s (Rajiv Gandhi’s) only association with (the) aircraft industry (to our knowledge) has been as pilot of Indian Airlines and this is the first time we have heard his name as entrepreneur,” the cable said.
More damning were the contents of another cable that hinted at the influence of Rajiv Gandhi, then a mere pilot, because his mother was the prime minister.
The cable also said Rajiv Gandhi’s mother Indira Gandhi, who was then the prime minister, was “personally dominating the negotiations” with the Swedish company “without the involvement of the Indian Air Force officers”.
It said though Rajiv Gandhi was mentioned in flattering terms and his technical expertise considered high, “this may or may not be. Off hand, we would have thought a transport pilot (is) not the best expert to rely upon in evaluating a fighter plane, but then we are speaking of a transport pilot who has another and perhaps more relevant qualification”.
Rajiv, the elder son of Indira Gandhi, entered politics in 1980 after the death of his younger brother Sanjay in a plane crash in June that year. The revelations relate to years before Rajiv entered active politics.
He became Prime Minister of India in 1984 after Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh security guards in October 1984.
In 1986, Rajiv’s name was linked to the Bofors scam in which middlemen were accused of taking Rs.64 crore as kickbacks to close the deal for 410 155mm Swedish howitzer field guns. Rajiv was then the prime minister and the Bofors scam resulted in the Congress losing the 1989 national election. Investigations into the case went on for many years and in February 2004 the Delhi high court gave a clean chit to Rajiv Gandhi in the case.
The Congress debunked the WikiLeaks report, saying the issue was a result of the media resorting to “sensationalism”.
“One agency (WikiLeaks) which sometime back had alleged it had information on a number of issues and published it through the American Embassy. However, till today, this has not been verified,” Janardhan Dwivedi, Congress general secretary, told reporters.
For the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), however, the WikiLeaks disclosures were enough to renew its attack on the Congress party and the UPA government.
“The WikiLeaks revelations are serious. This is absolutely shocking revelation. Let us not forget that the revelations are making two specific charges about two of their late prime ministers Indiraji and Rajivji,” BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar said. The charges “are connected to the first family of Congress. All defence deals have some relation with the Congress’ first family. They should come clean on this, all the documents should be made public”.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, demanded an independent enquiry into the revelations. “I don’t know whether what they (WikiLeaks) are saying is a fact or not, but if it is a fact then it is highly unfortunate for the country,” said Basudeb Acharia, CPM leader and member of the Lok Sabha. “There is definitely a need to have an independent enquiry on this.”
The UPA government is already embattled with allegations of its leaders being involved in the second generation (2G) spectrum allocation scam, misappropriation of funds during the organization of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, irregularities in coal block allocations, and payment of bribes to swing the Rs.3,600 crore AgustaWestland helicopter deal.
The WikiLeaks reports have “the potential to be a huge issue. We have seen in the past also how WikiLeaks expose has created quite a stir”, said Sandeep Shashtri, political analyst and pro vice-chancellor at Jain University and director of the International Academy for Creative Teaching at Bangalore, adding that opposition parties would “vigorously pursue” the issue and take it to the floor of the House.
“It does have the potential to embarrass the ruling party specially when it is heading towards elections and when it does not have a clear majority of its own,” Shashtri said. “It would, however, be important to see how authentic these leaks are.”
“WikiLeaks cables have not been taken seriously anywhere in the world and so I don’t see why we should be taking them seriously,” foreign minister Salman Khurshid told reporters on the sidelines of an event in the national capital. “ I don’t think we need to make an exception for this,” he added.
Kirthi V. Rao contributed to this story.