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I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.

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June 24, 2020

The Indian Opposition Resigns from Parliament to Protest the Bofors Scandal

On 24 June, 1989, 73 Members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha, the Indian lower house, resigned their positions and walked out of the chamber en masse. The move was a public protest of the government’s handling of a massive scandal centered around arms procurement. Their actions would shake faith in the Indian government, radically alter the results of the general election held that year, and change the face of Indian politics for decades.

In 1986, after protracted negotiations, the Indian Army signed an agreement to acquire artillery pieces from the venerable Swedish arms manufacturer Bofors AB. The deal was among the biggest in the history of Bofors, and represented a significant investment by India. So far, so good - until in April 1987, a team of journalists at Swedish Radio aired a series of reports, based on information provided by an anonymous source, alleging that the deal had been rendered possible by significant bribes paid by Bofors to Indian politicians high up in the Congress Party establishment. The Indian public, strangely enough, didn’t make a habit of tuning into broadcasts from Sweden, but Indian journalists in Europe took notice. Chitra Subramaniam, a stringer for the respected Indian daily The Hindu based in Geneva, Switzerland, made her way to Sweden and managed to get in touch with the anonymous source - revealed in 2012 as Sten Lindstrom, a senior officer of the Swedish Police. Lindstom had encountered the documents in question during an investigation into other aspects of Bofors’ dealings, and, with little faith in either government to remedy the situation, hoped the Indian media would make something of the affair.

He was right. Subramaniam and her editor, Narasimhan Ram, personally took possession of the documents from Lindstrom and began investigating further. Meanwhile, the Swedish media reports had been noticed by the Indian political establishment. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi fielded pointed questioning on the floor of the Lok Sabha, and agreed to create a Joint Parliamentary Committee to investigate the Bofors deal. The committee produced its report in mid-1988, absolving the government of any wrongdoing but failing to convince the growing number of critics of the Congress Party administration. The Indian Opposition had sensed opportunity. The Congress had enjoyed almost unbroken rule since India’s independence - the keyword being almost. Under Rajiv Gandhi’s mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a coalition of opposition parties had briefly unseated the Congress. Now, amidst a growing budget deficit, confused economic policies, growing public unrest, and an ill-advised Indian entanglement in neighboring Sri Lanka’s civil war, the time seemed ripe for change - and the Bofors affair could be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Needless to say, the Opposition broadly rejected the findings of the Joint Parliamentary Committee’s report. At the same time, The Hindu and another Indian daily, the Indian Express, published copies of documents showing the transfer of funds from Bofors to middlemen in India; the Swedish public prosecutor’s office confirmed their authenticity. The government scrambled a response, including pressuring the owners of The Hindu to stop covering the affair, but the damage in the eyes of the public had been done. Over the next year, the Opposition marshalled their own propaganda machinery against Rajiv Gandhi’s government, with startling effectiveness. In 1989, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India began releasing findings indicating that the Bofors guns weren’t even particularly effective, and had been rushed through the testing process. The Opposition, incensed, demanded the resignation of Rajiv Gandhi. They knew they didn’t have the votes in the Lok Sabha to force it; Gandhi still commanded a majority. His refusal, however, gave them just what they needed: an opportunity to prolong the spectacle around the Bofors scandal. En masse, and in an unprecedented show of unity, the Opposition resigned.

The move had been in the works for some time. The Opposition had been coalescing around two parties; the Janata Dal (JD), led by embittered ex-Congress politician V.P. Singh, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by longtime Congress opponent L.K. Advani. These two, and a host of other parties, formed the National Front, a coalition that opposed the Congress in the general election held in November 1989 while the Bofors scandal was still fresh in the public consciousness. The results spoke for themselves; the Congress lost its majority, while the National Front formed a government with V.P. Singh as Prime Minister.

The ramifications of the Bofors scandal were vast and numerous. ‘Bofors’ itself became a byword for both scandals and the corruption of which the Gandhi family was, and is, accused by its critics. The JPC and CAG reports continued to be quibbled over for decades. One of the chief accused, the Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, was investigated for two decades until finally (and controversially) cleared in 2007. The fall of the Congress in 1989 itself influenced Indian politics in significant ways. As the embattled Congress found it necessary to ally with smaller parties to survive, India entered an era of coalition politics. The National Front coalition would be short-lived, but one of its core constituents, the BJP, is now India’s ruling party; needless to say, Bofors often features in its attacks on the current face of the Congress, Rajiv Gandhi’s son Rahul Gandhi. Even after all these years, the Bofors scandal still lacks any real closure, and still haunts Indian politics.

Sahaj Sankaran

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