Wednesday, Sep 18, 2019 | Last Update : 02:16 AM IST

When LK Advani apologised to Sonia Gandhi

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy
Published : Jul 1, 2019, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Jul 1, 2019, 12:05 am IST

There are many others who were viscerally opposed to the Congress Party’s style of government and what it represents.

BJP senior leader L.K. Advani (Photo: PTI)
 BJP senior leader L.K. Advani (Photo: PTI)

For L.K. Advani’s one time adviser, S. Gurumurthy, the end justifies any means, even unethical. Like wild allegations against the Gandhis in a BJP report which made the “iron man” apologise.

Two things stand out about Mr L.K. Advani. He is one of the most decent people in the higher levels of Indian politics. He is also a bad judge of people, and this is best reflected in his choice of advisers. Probably the closest to him among them is the Chennai-based chartered accountant and corporate lobbyist, Mr S. Gurumurthy — an RSS activist and no-holds-barred antagonist of the Congress.

There are many others who were viscerally opposed to the Congress Party’s style of government and what it represents. But Mr Gurumurthy is one of those to whom the end justifies any means. These means are often ethically and even legally unsound. This penchant has often got him into trouble, but his place in Mr Advani’s innermost circle has, almost always, remained unchanged.

On February 8, 2011, the BJP released a rather grandiloquently but grammatically inelegant document titled “Indian Black Money Abroad in Secret Banks and Tax Havens: Second Report of the Task Force on the steps to be taken by India”. The task force presumably comprised of the authors listed, namely, S. Gurumurthy, Ajit Doval, Professor R. Vaidyanathan and Mahesh Jethmalani — all well-known persons. Mr Doval was a former director of the Intelligence Bureau, Mr Vaidyanathan is a professor of finance at IIM-Bangalore, and Mr Jethmalani is a prominent lawyer. Mr Gurumurthy himself is a well-known chartered accountant, and an expert in company law and the ways to exploit loopholes in tax laws to the advantage of his clients. He is also frequently a mediator in intra-corporate and inter-corporate disputes. Quite clearly, some people consider him eminent.

However, the report reflected little of the authors’ expertise and acumen, or maybe it did. It was full of wild conjecture and inaccurate, unsubstantiated allegations and innuendo. Worse, it was badly written and reflected badly on the writing skills of the distinguished four.

In normal circumstances, such poorly drafted and crafted documents would have been discarded as the usual political claptrap of allegations and invective that characterises our political discourse. But this report drew a response from Sonia Gandhi, who wrote to Mr L.K. Advani, apparently, bitterly complaining about the accusation made against her family and herself of having bank accounts in Switzerland. A Swiss bank account is shorthand for having illegally earned money, which is then stashed away in Switzerland’s banks as that country’s laws empower the banks to protect the identities of their clients. There are several such havens where such monies can be stashed away.

Mr Gurumurthy will know this. Many of his clients would, no doubt, be having such accounts. One case readily comes to mind. In the late 1980s, when his friend and mentor, the late Ramnath Goenka was charged with illegally paying for machinery imported by the Indian Express group through Swiss banks, Mr Gurumurthy crafted an ingenious defence. He said that the money was a “hand loan” from a “reputed Swiss jurist” — a Doctor Muller, if I remember right.

Now we know that every second lawyer in Switzerland also serves as a fiduciary (trustee) for an overseas client, who may not be able to directly operate his/her account. And every two-bit lawyer can be passed off as an eminent jurist. The purpose of referring to this is not to rake up an old and obviously undecided case, but to draw attention to the flexibility with facts and stretch of imagination that are Mr Gurumurthy’s hallmarks.

The BJP report alleged that Rajiv Gandhi had over 2.5 billion Swiss francs in his name in an unnamed Swiss bank, and attributed this to a story that appeared in the November 11, 1991 issue of a lurid pictorial magazine, Schweizer Illustrierte. The story whose focus was on the money stashed away by Imelda Marcos, wife of the late Philippines dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, has a box with photographs and names of persons with alleged holdings in Switzerland. It is just an allegation with no substantiation, which Mr Gurumurthy and certainly Mr Mahesh Jethmalani would have demanded had a similar accusation been made about a BJP leader.

Now, in November 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was dead for several months. And the charge that he held nearly `10,000 crore in a secret Swiss account was ludicrous. This amount was equal to about 10 per cent of the 1991 Union Budget, and India’s foreign exchange reserves then were just over `4,000 crore. Even today, when India has over 50 dollar billionaires, many of whom are Mr Gurumurthy’s friends, if not clients, `10,000 crore is still a lot of money. The total kickback amount implied in the Bofors deal — the biggest corruption case of the 1980s — was, by today’s standards, a tiddly-widdly `64 crore. Even if Rajiv Gandhi got all of it — even Mr Gurumurthy would not say this was the case, since his friends, the Hinduja brothers of London, too, got some of the Bofors commissions — there would have had to be a huge number of similar deals. Now, that just didn’t happen during Rajiv Gandhi’s five years as Prime Minister.

Apart from this, Mr Gurmurthy et al concluded that all transactions covered in the IMF report “Cross-Border Investment in Small International Financial Centres”, which estimates such transactions to total $19 trillion, is black money. This was a gross misreading of the report. The report listed out countrywise transactions through these havens, but nowhere did the study refer to this money as black money or criminally obtained money. Several nations invest their reserves through banks located in these tax havens, and several corporations also do this. The BJP report wrongly took this amount to be all black money, and cited a study done by a E.J. Fagan, a mere intern at an NGO called Global Financial Integrity. The integrity of such a citation cannot mean much.

The report also used another dubious source to suggest that the Gandhi family received money from the KGB, the former Soviet Union’s intelligence agency. The source cited here is the so-called Mitrokhin Archives, authored by a walk-in defector from the KGB to Britain’s SIS.

Mitrokhin revealed that the KGB made payments to Indira Gandhi since the early 1970s. This is at best hearsay. Facts do not suggest such a cozy relationship between the KGB and Indira Gandhi. In August 1975, her government expelled a senior KGB officer V.V. Mizin and his junior, Alexander Portyrailo, posted in New Delhi as diplomats, for activities incompatible with their diplomatic status. The Mitrokhin Archives also suggest that Rahul Gandhi, too, had money paid into his bank account in the mid-1970s — a laughable allegation as it would imply that Mr Rahul Gandhi was a recipient of KGB payoffs when he was about 12 years old! The Mitrokhin Archives are a favourite reference book of that inveterate muckraker, Subramanian Swamy, and is even now often cited by him, long after Mitrokhin was discovered to be a MI6 fraud.

Now, Mr L.K. Advani is a decent and honourable man. When Sonia Gandhi wrote to him, he saw an apology as the honourable way out. But the politician in Mr Advani peeks out when he also wrote that Sonia Gandhi should have rebutted the article in 1991, when in all probability she might not even have known that it was published in some Swiss rag.

Politics is a competition for power. But, in a democracy it is incumbent that the competition be not only within the limits prescribed by law but, more importantly, also within the limits of decency.

Tags: lk advani, sonia gandhi