April 2012 marks the 25 anniversary of the Bofors-India media revelations, which began on April 16, 1987 with revelations on Swedish state radio. The Hoot presents an interview with the man who decided to leak over 350-documents to former Indian journalist Chitra Subramaniam-Duella, then with The Hindu and later with The Indian Express and The Statesman. The documents included payment instructions to banks, open and secret contracts, hand written notes, minutes of meetings and an explosive diary. They led to the electoral defeat of an Indian prime minister and blew gaping holes into a Swedish prime minister’s record as a champion of peace and disarmament. Above all, they formed the basis for the first ever transfer of secret bank documents from Switzerland to India.
Sten Lindstrom is the former head of Swedish police who led the investigations into the Bofors-India gun deal. In an interview to Subramaniam-Duella, he reveals himself as the Swedish Deep Throat and explains why he chose to turn whistleblower.
Q - Why did you decide to identify yourself now?
A – Twenty five years is a good land-mark. We have had some time for reflection. Now it is time to speak again. Corruption levels in the world are increasing. There is new business around corruption with companies selling products that measure corruption instead of questioning why it is there in the first place. In a world of shrinking resources and ruthless ambition, we have to ensure that survival instincts that brought us out of the caves do not push us back in there because of a few greedy people. I hope I can contribute to the global struggle against corruption by sharing what I know.
Q – Tell us something about yourself.
A – 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.
Q – Nostalgia?
A – No, I base myself on hard evidence that is even more relevant today than it was 25 years ago. We are still world leaders in many fields, but somewhere our guiding principles have fallen by the wayside. No one is against successful businesses and it can be done. Here in Sweden we have the Wallenbergs, in India you have the TATA group. These are global companies and institutions. Their business ethics and corporate social responsibility work is not a slide on a power-point. It is generations of hard work. Bofors was a good company. Their products were good. Unfortunately in the race to expand business, they resorted to illegal shipments, bribery and corruption. They claimed a tax-deduction for the money they had to pay as bribes.
In my long career as a police officer I have seen many things. 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. The $1.3 billion deal with India for the sale of 410 field howitzers, and a supply contract almost twice that amount was the biggest arms deal ever in Sweden. Money marked for development projects was diverted to secure this contract at any cost. Rules were flouted, institutions were bypassed and honest Swedish officials and politicians were kept in the dark. Our former Prime Minister Olof Palme was talking peace, disarmament and sustainable development globally, while we were selling arms illegally, including to countries that were on our banned list. My office, the office of Hans Ekblom, the public prosecutor in Stockholm, our National Audit Bureau – everything was ignored. So was the Swedish tax-payer.
The Managing Director of Bofors Martin Ardbo had worked very hard for this deal. He brought over 900 jobs to Karlskoga where Bofors is headquartered for atleast a decade. When the stories started appearing Ardbo was a shaken man. He knew that I knew that he had made a political payment even more secretly than the rest to close this deal. He told me he didn’t have a choice.
Q – How did the India angle in Bofors crop-up?
A – It was an accident. We were conducting several search and seize operations in the premises of Bofors and their executives. I have some experience in this area, so I asked my team to take everything they could find. In the pile were one set of documents to Swiss banks with instructions that the name of the recipient should be blocked out. An accountant doing his job asked why anonymity was necessary since the payments were legal. Bofors was unable to explain and then we found more and more documents leading to India.
Q – Looking back, what would you say are some of the lessons learnt?
A – There are several, but I could mention a few. The role of the whistle-blower is a part of democracy. When all official channels are clogged, you have to take a decision. We have a culture here that it is okay to blow the whistle. I have met other whistle blowers. I knew what I was doing when I leaked the documents to you. I could not count on my government or Bofors or the government of India to get to the bottom of this. My only option was to leak the documents to someone we could trust.
There needs to be a free and fair discussion in the media about itself. The media is the watchdog of our society – but who is watching the media? Most whistle blowers around the world leak information to the media because they feel they owe it to their country, their job or the position they are elected to.
Genuine whistle-blowers also expect the media to be responsible and according to me this means that the media has to understand the motives of whistle-blowers. Not everyone is driven by the same motive. This is where investigative journalism comes in. Every role has its limits. I cannot become a journalist, a journalist cannot become a judge and a judge cannot become a politician. Who controls the media, what are their interests? What happens if a reporter is also part of the management? Do journalistic ethics compete with business and political interests of the media organisation? Can an ombudsman be the answer? If not, let us all work together globally to find a solution we all respect and understand.
There is also a lot of debate in the world about the role of middlemen in arms deals. Some say they should not exist at all, others say they have a role. I believe they have a role insofar as marketing a product is concerned and they should be remunerated accordingly in a transparent way so that the cost to the buyer is not circulated as kickbacks. Where it becomes illegal and dangerous is when the ambit of their work includes paying politicians and bureaucrats and in some cases journalists to push their product. Once you are in their clutches, it is very difficult to extricate yourself.
Q – What is your view on Wikileaks?
A – All leaks have a motive and they play a role. Wikileaks went up to a point and it is welcome. I have not seen many instances of journalists or governments taking the leaks further to the next level. It is not enough for journalists to ask questions. In their privileged positions as watchdogs, they have to take the leaks further without fear or favour.
Q – With time and distance, how do you view your leaks?
A – I believe I did the best I could. I watched you work for almost one year before I took my decision to leak the Bofors-India documents to you. You were one of many journalists from India and Sweden as well as many politicians from India who visited me during this period. I was lectured to and told how to do my job. Many mentioned Rajiv Gandhi’s involvement and that the guns were duds hoping I would react. I am used to these tricks. I told everyone the guns were excellent. The problem was in the procurement process.
People trust people. Trust is built over time. The one and only visit by your former editor N. Ram of The Hindu to my office in whose presence I handed over the documents is a detail. I would have leaked the documents to you even if you had worked for any other newspaper.
The Hindu’s role in all this was that of a medium of communication. I met them because you insisted. I was disappointed. They published the documents as and when they wanted without any respect for the risks other people were taking to get the facts out.
The most explosive documents that involved the political payments were Ardbo’s notes and diary. The Hindu published them several months after they had them. In the meantime there was a serious difficulty. I got a message that my name was circulating in Delhi’s political circles as the whistleblower. This caused a lot of stress and difficulty for me. You will recall the month you were not allowed to call me while we investigated who leaked my name as the whistle-blower in India. There were consequences for me and my family. The Hindu seemed unconcerned.
Q – Any regrets?
A – No. I took an informed decision to give you the documents. But I will say this much - when newspapers think they are more important than the story, journalism suffers. When editors cross their limits, it can be dangerous.
Q - Tell us something about those days, people’s reactions, your difficulties.
A - People in Sweden were shell-shocked. Bo G Andersson of the Dagens Nyhetter (DN), Burje Remdahl and Jan Mosander of the Swedish Radio are investigative journalists of repute. They were exposing illegal sales of arms to eastern Europe, the middle-east, even Vietnam through Australia. There was total disbelief in Karlskoga. The Indian deal was the straw that broke the camel’s back because it showed that corruption had reached right to the top in Sweden and in India. They were very brazen about it. There was no evidence of any bribe being paid to Palme, but he and some of his ministers knew exactly what was going on.
Q- Quarter century later, any reflections on why Rajiv Gandhi’s name came up?
A– There was no evidence that he had received any bribe. But he watched the massive cover-up in India and Sweden and did nothing. Many Indian institutions were tarred, innocent people were punished while the guilty got away. The evidence against Ottavio Quattrrocchi was conclusive. Through a front company called A.E. Services, bribes paid by Bofors landed in Quattrocchi’s account which he subsequently cleaned out because India said there was no evidence linking him to the Bofors deal. Nobody in Sweden or Switzerland was allowed to interrogate him.
Ardbo was terrified about this fact becoming public. He had hidden it even from his own marketing director Hans Ekblom who said marketing middlemen had a role, but not political payments. Ardbo was also concerned about the role of Arun Nehru who had told Bofors in 1985 that his name and Rajiv Gandhi’s name should not appear anywhere. As the stories began to appear, Ardbo knew what I knew. He had written in his notes that the identity of N (Nehru) becoming public was a minor concern but at no cost could the identity of Q (Quattrocchi) be revealed because of his closeness to R (Rajiv Gandhi). He had also mentioned a meeting between an A.E. Services official and a Gandhi trustee lawyer in Geneva. This was a political payment. These payments are made when the deal has to be inked and all the numbers are on the table. I spent long-hours interrogating Ardbo. He told me Nehru was the eminence grise but not much more. He said often that he would take the truth with him to his grave. I met him a little while before he passed away.
Under pressure from Swedish and Indian media and with the threat of a cancellation of the contract hanging over them, Bofors sent its top executives to India with the one-point task of giving out the names. Nobody of any consequence received them.
Q– What was your experience with the Indian investigators?
A – The only team I met in early 1990 damaged the seriousness of my work and the media investigation. I met them on a courtesy call. They were in the process of filing a letter-rogatory (LR) in Switzerland. Without an official request from Switzerland, Sweden could not intervene. They gave me a list of names to pursue including the name of Amitabh Bachchan. They also told me they did not trust you entirely because you had refused to link the Bachchans to the kickbacks. During that trip to Sweden, the Indian investigators planted the Bachchan angle on DN. The Bachchan’s took them to court in the UK and won. DN had to apologise and they said the story had come from Indian investigators. I was disappointed with the role of many senior journalists and politicians during that period. They muddied the waters.
After the LR was lodged in Switzerland, I was waiting for the official track with India and Switzerland to begin. It never did. Whenever the public prosecutor Ekblom and I heard of any Indian visits to Stockholm, we would speak to the media expressing our desire to meet them. Can you imagine a situation where no one from India met the real investigators of the gun deal? That was when we saw the extent to which everyone was compromised. Many politicians who had come to my office claiming they would move heaven and earth to get at the truth if they came to power, fell silent when they held very important positions directly linked to the deal.
Q – Any final thoughts?
A – There cannot be final thoughts on something like this. False closures of corruption bleed the system. Every day has to matter. When something like the scale and violence of Bofors happens, you begin to question your own faith as a professional and a human being. When you start losing faith, you begin to lose hope. When hope is lost, everything is lost. We cannot afford to let that happen. Maybe we will get nowhere, but silence cannot be the answer.