Libertatem Magazine

The President, the Media and the Bofors Saga: The Ruckus of the Locked Horns

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Just before the Indian President, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Sweden, the incumbent seems to have ignited a controversy by stating that the Bofors Gun Deal should not be coined as a scandal as there was no decision on it by the judiciary, rather it was just another “trial by the media” which created a public perception that the case was a scam.The matter gained much more significance when India objected to a Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, publishing the comments of the Indian President on the matter of the Bofors deal. Banashri Bose, the Indian ambassador to Sweden, in her letter to the newspaper accused the newspaper of publishing off the record information and the newspaper responded strongly by reprimanding India for trying to micromanage the questions they should be asking.

A “trial by media” is a popular phrase used to describe the impact of news on social media, television, newspaper etc. pertaining to a particular incident and thus, creating a public perception about the same. Trial by media has gripped the nation and has unfortunately, been ongoing for quite some time. The same is manifestin the present Bofors case, wherein even before there has been a verdict by an appropriate adjudicating authority, a tainted public perception has already been aroused, thus creating an undue pressure on the judiciary.

The Bofors gun deal, dating back to 1986, has been tagged as a major scandal as committed by the then Congress Government. The Rs.1500 crore contract, the biggest dealings ever in arms by Sweden, included Swedish gun manufacturers Bofors to supply Howitzer guns to India. However, investigative journalism led to the stumbling upon the discovery that the deal involved paying massive kickbacks to the politicians and defence officials. In the aftermath of the controversy, the incumbent Congress government, which was in power at that time, lost in the subsequent 1989 general elections.

Ottavio Quattrochhi, an Italian business man, played the role of a middleman between the Indian Government and the Bofors firm. He was also said to be a close family aid of the then Prime Minister, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi and the first charge sheet filed by CBI, in 1999, included the names of both, Quattrochhi and Mr. Gandhi.

In 2002 all proceedings on the Bofors deal were quashed by the Delhi High Court

The key accused, Quattrochhi, staying in Argentina, could not be extradited by the Indian authorities, in the absence of an extradition treaty between Argentina and India. . The government of India presented their case in the Argentine Supreme Court, but lost the same in the event of non production of an instrumental document on their part.   The Delhi High Court in 2004 held that there was no evidence to evince any form of involvement of Mr. Rajiv Gandhiin the Bofors controversy and in 2011, the Delhi High Court provided temporary relief to Quattrochhi by de-freezing his bank accounts in London due to lack of evidence in proving that these accounts were connected to the Bofors deal.

India even lifted its blacklist status imposed on Bofors in 1999, which was imposed in 1987 due to the allegations of kickbacks paid by the firm. Furthermore, the Bofors guns were used in the Kargil War against Pakistan as the primary field artillery and certain officials even went on to claim that the gun gave them the ‘edge’ in the war.

The case is still undergoing trial and is awaiting a judgement.

It is in regards to these facts and also the findings of the Delhi High Court that the remark made by the Indian President seems to be nothing out of the line. The President of India, Mr. Mukherjee has rightly remarked that the case was adjudged as a scam only by the media trial and not by any judgement of a competent judicial authority. Though many would claim that this might be an attempt by the President to  mend the Congress party’s dented image, but even if it were assumed to be true, the President cannot be blamed for his remark which is perfectly in line with the judicial findings so far, which have indicated no link between the Bofors deal and Mr. Rajiv Gandhi. The de-freezing of the accounts of Mr. Quattrochhi, in the event of lack of evidence as to any connection with the Bofors deal is another point which only lends credence to the statement made by Mr. Mukherjee. Although one might blame Mr. Rajiv Gandhi for bad governance which led to the Bofors controversy but for that, the public had already reprimanded the party by voting them out in the 1989 general elections and it is pointless to hold anyone guilty for an offence which is yet to be proved against them.

On a concluding note, a premise that needs to be set forth is that media trial is not based upon a proper judicial discourse and hence, the formation of any perception based on it is most likely to be flawed. The media which has often been dubbed as the fourth pillar of the Indian democracy along with the Executive, Judiciary and the Legislature, has many a times done more harm than good through these media trials. Taking the example of the present case at hand, it is in common parlance dubbed as the “Bofors scam” or “Bofors scandal” courtesy to the incessant reporting, when in reality, there has been no judicial pronouncement affirming the same and on the contrary, the judicial findings so far have only given relief to the accused persons. It is highly unprofessional and one might even say irresponsible on the part of the media to not respect the judiciary and come out with a verdict of their own. The sole purpose of free media is to provide its readers/viewers with proper facts on a blank canvas and to let them sketch their own thoughts on it, rather than feeding them with opinions on sub-judice matters.

Therefore on this occasion, as controversial as it may sound, the President was bang on target with his remark and it is only expected of the media to act responsibly and not make a headline where one doesn’t exist.

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