A MURDER IN STOCKHOLM
The assassination of Olof Palme remains a mystery in the backdrop of the Bofors scam. Hardnews explores the hidden dimensions of this murder, from Sweden to India
Gautam Pingle Hyderabad
The Swedes have a tradition of open government. In the Bofors case, though, to the distress of many Swedes, there was a cover-up by government circles. This was largely on account of the involvement of the Swedish prime minister and world statesman, Olof Palme.
Arun Singh, former minister of state for defence in the Indian government and principal actor in this drama, put it neatly in his interview on NDTV: “It was through a story breaking out in Sweden. I was sure that no Swedish individual was involved in the affair. The Sweden story impacted on the politics there and the standards there — both of morality, rule of law and accountability (which) are unimpeachable and different from ours — that made me convinced.”
As Sten Lindstrom says: “Like many Swedes of my generation my wife Eva and I were raised in the best traditions of social democracy. Swedes are a hard working people. Equity and justice for all is something we hold dear and for which we have strived as a nation. We built our institutions, our political and social systems, around principles that were gold standards. We led the world as much in business forums as in the social arena (SL2).”
He spoke for his fellow Swedish citizens when he said: “What was shocking in the whole Bofors-India saga was the scale of political involvement in Sweden, breaking all rules, including those we set for ourselves. Bofors was a wake up call for most Swedes who thought corruption happens only far away in Africa, South America and Asia. There was disbelief and hurt when they found that some of their top politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen were no better than others (SL2).”
After seeing a late night movie on February 28, 1986, Palme was walking home via an unnecessarily long and less safe and less well-lit route (inconceivable in minus 7 degrees cold). Palme seemed to have had a pre-arranged meeting to pick up papers at a particular point
Background: The Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme, had written to prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1983 supporting the Bofors offer to supply 155 mm howitzers (HW, p 45) and this was to be the basis for bringing the Swedish government in on the deal. Palme had also met R Venkataraman, then defence minister (later president of India), when he visited Sweden in November 1983 (HW, p 45). Already, in the summer of 1984, the Swedes had established that “the final decision is in the hands of Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv, who, both, have interests in the deal (HW, p.47).” Rajiv Gandhi then held no official post; he was
general secretary of the ruling Congress party.
The process for the supply of 155 mm field artillery had been on-going. Talks with the Swedes about their Bofors guns had already been initiated by VP Singh when he was finance minister in 1985 (HW, p.9). On June 10, 1985, VP Singh enquired from Palme the status of the criminal proceedings which had started in March 1985 against Bofors and Martin Ardbo for arms smuggling. So, the government of India knew they were dealing with a potential criminal. But, Palme told him that “Bofors could have been tricked” — thus defending Bofors.
The National Swedish Criminal Police had even postponed the interrogations of Martin Ardbo for three months so that he could head Bofors’ negotiations in New Delhi! The police had a perfect case, which resulted finally in a conviction in December 1989 (HW, p.11).
However, with the French Sofma gun leading the list in all six different technical assessments, Bofors did not stand a chance and the Swedes knew it. But, if anyone were willing to do anything to get the deal, it would obviously be the second best, Bofors — not the front-runner, Sofma.
Indian High-Level Contact and Conditions: The Swedes were dismayed that the assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984, would delay the deal. Her son Rajiv Gandhi succeeded her and the Swedes waited for the contact to be made now that the Swedish interest was established at the very highest level. This approach materialized in New Delhi on April 19, 1985. The Swedish ambassador to India, Axel Edelstam, sent an urgent cable to Carl Johan Aberg. Aberg (earlier general secretary of the ruling Social Democratic Party) was now a political appointee as under secretary of trade in the ministry of foreign affairs. He was also Olof Palme’s point man for this deal.
' The Bofors case told itself. And it will continue to do so. By making my work difficult at every twist and turn, by hiding what I was looking for, by offering me irrelevant information and by continuing, even today, to pretend to look for the culprits, the Bofors story continues to tell itself’
Edelstam stated: “On Thursday I was summoned at short notice to the minister of power, Arun Nehru, the prime minister’s second cousin and close confidant. He declared that he had been instructed by Rajiv Gandhi to inform me that the Indian government was very interested in a deal with Sweden concerning 155 mm field howitzers… Furthermore, they were keen to obtain ammunition for the piece from the same supplier — that is, from Bofors (HW, p.217).”