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Rajiv Gandhi

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The last three days, I have been waking up in 1975.

‘American mole in Indira Gandhi’s household,’ screamed one headline from the newspaper.  Three assassination attempts on Sanjay Gandhi,’ shouted another. ‘Henry Kissinger is …’ well, I don’t know what it read because by then I was already checking the calendar not so much for the date but the century itself.

Thanks to Wikileaks, which is performing the yeoman service of confirming to us what is pretty much already confirmed to us, our newspapers these days are full of reports of utmost immediacy and urgency in 1975 or thereabouts.

Journalistically speaking, these news are impeccable, and adhere to the basic tenet of the profession, which categorically states: Any piece of information on Indians, exchanged as internal communications between Americans, and released by a person born in Australia and living in Sweden as he is fighting huge charges of sexual misconduct, cannot but be absolutely true.

Even though it is disorienting to realise that the breaking news of today is exactly, well, what was breaking news 30 years ago, it is actually more fun than the real news of the day. I mean ‘Rajiv Gandhi was a middleman for Swedish jet firm’ kind of stories will at least keep me awake whereas ‘Manmohan tells CII that economy will turnaround in 6 months’ will have me falling head-first into the bowl of cereals at the breakfast table.

But Rajiv Gandhi and Swedish firms go a long way back and make for rivetting read always. I, of course, am about to bring up the legendary Bofors story, which kind of provided ‘breaking news’ stuff for well over five straight years. In contradistinction, the recent helicopter deal scandal enjoyed the ‘breaking news’ status for a total time of 23 minutes. After that people switched back to what they always do while watching TV, which is to keep switching channels constantly in the hope of catching something worthwhile to watch. Usually they don’t succeed.

Before we talk of the actual scandal, here are a couple of lines of background information on the country and the company. Sweden is a major manufacturer of arms and ammunitions, but since it is a peace-loving country, it exports almost all of them to other nations. Switzerland is another peace-friendly country in Europe known for its knives. Bofors, for its part, had made a name for itself on its visiting cards and letterheads. Otherwise, it was pretty much an unknown quantity.

The Bofors scandal, when it first made it to the newspapers in the late 80s with blazing lines like ‘Huge kickbacks alleged in howitzer deal’, was a major shock and surprise to the public, mainly because it was the first time in modern India that many people were coming across the word ‘howitzer’.  Over the years, the general public understood what howitzer was — it is a high artillery gun that is difficult to track on the battlefront as it comes attached with what in defence parlance is termed as: difficult spelling.

The allegation was that the Swedish arms manufacturer paid Rs. 66 crore to people at the ‘top echelons of the government’ to okay the deal. Of course, the scandal today would have been that you could influence a gun deal worth hundreds of crores of rupees by paying just Rs.66 crore. But the times then were simple and straightforward, by which we mean you could commit big crimes easily and without much effort.

Bofors and its Rs.66 crore kickbacks, if it were to happen today, can make it to news pages only as a ‘filler’, generally the kind of stuff that has no redeeming news quality and will not be read at all, but carried by publications because they help to perform the core journalistic function of: filling space. Manmohan Singh’s speeches, to give you an everyday example.

(On the other hand, if it were to happen today the Bofors scandal would be something on these lines: The Swedish arm supplier agrees to deliver cannon with the ability to shoot-and-scoot but actually provides something akin to Deepavali popgun which the Indian army realises only when it breaks open the packing at the battlefront in Kargil. But India still manages to win the day because it turns out that, due to an error in communication, Pakistan has deployed its Naval frigates to the Drass Sector. CBI files charge sheet in 2053.).

Anyway, the Bofors saga has died down due to many reasons 1. Rajiv Gandhi was heinously killed. 2. Many other subsequent scandals have dwarfed it. 3. The chief protagonist, Ottavio Quattrocchi, has managed to escape the dragnet probably for the fact his name is, I don’t know, difficult to spell.

But Bofors, over the two decades, has been good fun in a general sort of way, and thanks Assange for showing that remakes work in journalism, too and the way forward for the beleaguered newspaper industry may be to actually look back.

And who knows, news of Manmohan Singh government’s scandals may end up perking up someone’s morning 20 years later.

Now, that’s news.

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