New Delhi: The Bofors gun is back to haunt the Congress.
In sharp contrast to a nearly two-decade-long investigation by the CBI, an income tax tribunal bench has ruled that Rs 41 crore was paid in bribes to Ottavio Quattrocchi, an Italian businessman once considered a friend of the Gandhi family, and Win Chadha, the Bofors agent in India.
Quattrocchi, accused of serving as a conduit between the Swedish company and Indian politicians who received kickbacks for the deal, left India in 1993 to avoid being arrested. Chadha died in 2001. (Read: The Bofors case timeline)
The purchase of Bofors guns and the alleged corruption that the Rs 1500-crore deal was suffused with put Rajiv Gandhi in the hot seat and cost him the elections in 1989.
The tribunal consisting of two members says its investigations revealed that Chadha and Quattrocchi had been transferring the funds received from Bofors frequently from one account to another to avoid detection. The tribunal has also ruled that both Win Chadha and entities through which money was transferred as commission to Quattrocchi were liable to pay tax in India.
The order in fact indicts the government saying, "No action seems to have been taken against either (AE) Services or Ottavio Quattrocchi and other related entities, by the Income Tax Department. Bofors admittedly paid the amounts to the assessee (WN Chadha), AE Services, Quotrocci and other entities."
"This was not merely a case of bribery; it has now been established by a judicial order. Bribery was accompanied by a huge cover-up operation, which lasted for almost two decades. Nobody has still answered the question which this order raises, and we've been asking this again and again. In the year 1986, why was Mr Quattrocchi paid this money?" BJP leader Arun Jaitley said.
"The entire fraud, which was perpetuated by on this country by CBI at the behest of its political masters in the Congress party, stands unraveled," Jaitley added.
The Congress tried to remain calm.
"We have heard it only an hour before. We are not going to react to it in a hurry only because such a news has appeared in media or the Opposition has reacted to it. We will have to see the order first and then only we will give a response. Congress is not known for giving knee-jerk reactions," said Abhishek Singhvi, Congress spokesperson.
But the news couldn't be worse-timed for the Congress which is currently under attack by a united Opposition over what the BJP describes as its tolerance for corruption.
Even more controversially, the CBI's stand is in direct contrast to the tribunal.
In 2003, the CBI asked for Quattrocchi's accounts to be frozen.
In 2006, the CBI said it had no objection to the "unfreezing" of two London accounts in Quattrocchi's name - the CBI had originally asked for these accounts to be frozen in 900 on the ground that they were linked to the kickbacks in the Bofors case.
The CBI first named Quattrocchi in its chargesheet in 1999. But in 2009, the agency said it wanted to drop criminal proceedings against Quattrocchi because it does not have enough evidence against him after an investigation and trial that lasted nearly 10 years.
Tomorrow, a Delhi court will decide whether to sanction the CBI's request.