Days after an India-Sweden leaders’ summit, media reports suggest a developing potential complication in ties between the two countries, with faint echoes of a 1980s scandal. Reports have alleged that Indian Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari and his family received a bribe from Swedish bus manufacturer Scania, in form of a new luxury bus gifted to a company close to the minister’s sons in 2016.
Gadkari’s office has firmly denied the allegations, pointing out inconsistencies in the reports. “Gadkari and his family members have absolutely nothing to do with the purchase or sale of the bus. Nor do they have anything to do with any firm or individual who might be linked with the purchase or sale of the bus,” it has stated, while asking the media to wait for a statement from Scania before reaching to conclusions.
On March 9, Bloomberg reported about potential instances of graft in Scania’s India dealings. On March 10, Reuters reported, based on three Swedish media reports, that the company, a Volkswagen subsidiary, had bribed officials in seven Indian states between 2013 and 2016 to win contracts. It quoted the Swedish news channel STV as alleging “Scania delivered a specially equipped bus to a company with connections to India’s Minister of Transport Nitin Gadkari that was intended for his daughter’s wedding and was not fully paid for.”
It also claimed that the allegations are backed by an internal Scania investigation, though it is not clear from Reuters’ reporting whether the Scania investigation found anything specific to tie Gadkari or his family to the episodes of bribery. It quoted a Scania spokesperson as saying that the company had not sold a bus to Gadkari and refused to comment further.
The Diplomat is unable to verify these reports independently.
The reports alleging graft emerged days after the Indian and Swedish prime ministers, Narendra Modi and Stefan Löfven, held a virtual summit on March 5. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs in a press release after the summit had noted that bilateral relations between the two countries were based on “shared values of democracy, rule of law, pluralism, equality, freedom of speech, and respect for human rights.”
“The two leaders reviewed the extensive ongoing engagement between India and Sweden, and expressed satisfaction at the implementation of the Joint Action Plan and Joint Innovation Partnership agreed during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Sweden in 2018. They explored avenues of further diversifying the themes under the rubric of these partnerships,” it added.
In April 2018, Modi attended the first ever India-Nordic summit, which, along with Sweden, also involved Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway. The summit was widely heralded as exemplifying India’s growing and concrete stakes in the Nordic countries. India was also reelected to Observer status in the Arctic Council that year for a second term; the Council and the Nordic states have significant overlap in membership.
But India’s relations with Nordic countries have rarely been smooth, historically speaking. Norway’s involvement in the Sri Lankan civil war – and India’s belief that Oslo’s sympathies laid with the Tamil rebels – had been one bone of contention. With Denmark, it was the involvement of a Danish citizen in a December 1995 arms drop in the Indian state of West Bengal (arguably one of the oddest unsolved mysteries in India’s national-security history), and Copenhagen’s steadfast refusal to extradite him to India, that kept Denmark-India relations rocky for years.
Sweden, however, entered the Indian political discourse in 1987 when a radio channel in the country alleged that AB Bofors, a leading Swedish arms manufacturer, had paid bribes to several Indian politicians and defense officials – including then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi from the now opposition Congress Party – for an artillery guns deal signed the year before. The Bofors scandal tremendously damaged Gandhi’s political reputation. The Delhi High Court in 2004 finally gave a clean chit to Gandhi in the ensuing Indian criminal case – 13 years after he was assassinated by Tamil extremists.
It is unlikely that the Gadkari allegations would ever seize India’s political imagination like the Bofors saga in the 1980s, not the least because public opinion is unlikely to swayed by allegations made in far-away Stockholm, not to mention the quantum of alleged graft in this instance is puny compared to allegations leveled at Gandhi. But it is not a matter of small irony that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which has traditionally portrayed Congress leaders as corrupt and inept, would now have to square with its own Swedish stain, irrespective of where the truth lies.