Q without A

Quattrocchi is no more but the corruption case without an end will continue to haunt

Not many could pronounce his name right, but for more than two decades, utterance of Ottavio Quattrocchi's name became a byword in this country to insinuate collusive corruption and administrative bungling at the highest levels, depending on the identity of the chosen targets. It appeared that Indians just could not satiate their curiosity about the Italian businessman and he, for his part, gave away precious little. When death came to him, reportedly by heart attack, in Milan this weekend, two years had passed since the court allowed the CBI to withdraw the case against him, but details of his life since the Bofors scandal first broke remain scant and shadowy. The strange life of Mr Q may one day be finally profiled in all its particulars, but his obituary is also shorthand for all the sobering lessons from the Bofors case that unfortunately remain unlearnt.

The Bofors case burst into public consciousness on April 16, 1987, when Swedish radio announced that bribes had been paid to secure Bofors's sale of 155 mm Howitzers to India. That broadcast electrified politics in India, with the opposition's campaign targeted at Rajiv Gandhi and his inner circle. In retrospect, there were many reasons for the Congress's historic loss in the 1989 election, signalling the end of its grand social coalition and country-wide dominance. But at that time, it looked to be only about Bofors. In fact, after Gandhi's assassination in 1991, the alleged involvement of Quattrocchi became a link to taking the case to the Congress's first family. That we never got a clearer picture of what exactly transpired in the Bofors saga indeed, whether Quattrocchi was a wily man who escaped rightful punishment or someone unfairly drawn into the dragnet because of his nationality and social connections speaks of the quality of investigation that followed, on the watch of governments led by the Congress and its political adversaries (including the BJP and the Janata Dal led by V.P. Singh, who had especially personalised his 1989 campaign).

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