Monday, May 4, 2009

Quattrochi: Cover-up at any cost


Since the dawn of independence, no one has received from the Indian state more privileged treatment than Ottavio Quattrochi. He is a business dalal, a middleman, a fixer of deals collecting commissions along the way. Usually when a fixer is caught in a compromising position, his patrons and beneficiaries drop him.

Not if you are Quattrochi. When he was caught, not only was he not dropped; the Indian state repeatedly went out of its way to protect him. Consider just the landmarks. Following official disclosures by Swiss authorities about Bofors bribes, Quattrochi’s escape from Delhi was facilitated by government ministers. When he was arrested by the Malaysian police in 2002, the CBI made such a hotchpotch of India’s case that the courts in Malaysia released him. Exactly the same thing happened in Argentina five years later; the Indian authorities made such a pathetic show that the Argentine court was forced to set the man free. Quietly the Indian authorities also arranged to release the bribe money they had got frozen in Quattrochi’s London account. In a final act of grace, the CBI has asked for the removal of the Interpol warrant against him so that the spectre of arrest in strange lands will no longer bother this favoured apple of the Congress Party’s eye.

There is a further pattern in the way Congress leaders spring like wounded tigers to the defence of Quattrochi and his protectors. Their main argument is that no court has found the man guilty. Of course not. No court will ever find him guilty as long as those whose duty it is to provide evidence decide not to do so. Quattrochi’s defenders also say that “there is not a shred of evidence” against him. Great quantities of evidence have in fact been made available by Swiss authorities, Bofors company officials and independent Swiss and Swedish and Indian investigators. When Congress spokesmen ignore all this and ignore how cases are prosecuted shabbily with the intention of losing, they are assuming that Indian citizens are a stupid lot. Alas, they are not.

Stranger still is the timing. The party is in the midst of a make-or-break election. Yet, it takes suicidal steps. First, foolish selection of candidates in most states thereby consciously losing seats it could have won. Second, out of the blue, a clean chit to Jagdish Tytler thereby reopening the wounds of the Sikh community and losing tens of thousands of crucial votes. Then, out of the blue, a clean chit to Ottavio Quattrochi, a man either hated or suspected by most Indians.

Why? Why the desperation? And why now when the electoral price to be paid is likely to be very heavy? We can all guess the answers. We can also conclude that decisions of such momentous consequences cannot be taken by factotums in the CBI or this ministry or that. They can only come from a source of unchallengeable centralised authority, a wielder of absolute power whose resoluteness has the solidity of a rock and the immovability of a mountain.

Anna Magnani and Sophia Loren immortalised those qualities. They could set the screen on fire with their raw power and earthiness. Jean Renoir admiringly called Magnani “ the complete animal”. Loren’s passionate portrayal of tragedy in war-ravaged Italy remains indelible in our minds. Between them the two ladies made the world aware of a primeval force – the gritty, determined Italian middleclass woman. Before that primeval force the Indian state today bends and sways. Let us hope it won’t break.