Former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, pictured above as leader of the National Congress in 1991, may have been a middleman for an arms deal in the 1970s. File photo: AFP/Stefan Ellis

Cables link Rajiv Gandhi to Swedish arms deal

Among the more than 1.7 million US diplomatic and intelligence documents from the 1970s relayed by WikiLeaks Monday are reportedly cables indicating that Rajiv Gandhi may have been a middleman for a failed arms deal between Sweden and India, before he became India’s prime minister.

Writing about the revelations, the Hindu newspaper cites US embassy cables that say Gandhi, who was a commercial pilot at the time, was employed by Sweden’s Saab-Scania in the mid-70’s to help sell its Viggen fighter jet.

Reflecting what may have been the perceived advantage of having the then prime minister’s son involved in the deal, an American diplomat wrote in February 1976:

“We would have thought a transport pilot is not the best expert to use in evaluating a fighter plane, but then we are speaking of a transport pilot who has another and perhaps more relevant qualification.”

The deal fell through though, and India bought British Jaguar fighters instead.

But the experience may have had a sequel a decade later, when then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was involved in another arms deal, which made the name of the Swedish company Bofors a synonym for scandal in India.

That  involved the 1986 sale of more than 400 Howitzer field guns to India by the Swedish Bofors arms company, a 285 million dollar deal. Documents leaked by a Swedish police officer, and reported by Swedish Radio News, revealed 12 million dollars in kickbacks from Bofors to Indian defence officials and politicians, allegedly including Rajiv Gandhi.

The scandal led to the defeat of Gandhi’s Congress government in the 1989 elections. In 1991, while the case was being investigated by the Indian courts, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated for an unrelated cause.

The documents released now by Wikileaks were reportedly not secret, but rather on public record in the US National Archives. The BBC says much of the work in finding the documents and making them searchable was carried out by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, while he’s been holed up at Ecuador’s embassy in London.

He took refuge there to avoid extradition to Sweden where he is wanted for questioning over allegations of sexual assault.

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