Have faith and pass the Bofors gun
Sunday December 19, 1999
The faith zone of the Millennium Dome is both a perfunctory excuse for holding a trade fair to mark the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and a joyous affirmation of the affinity between global commerce and sectarian sentimentality. It will not be a Christians-only bash - that would be an 'exclusive' denial of the trade-unionism of the pious. But nor, as many predicted, will it be a celebration of New Age mysticism, the one faith to enjoy mass popularity.
Peter Mandelson's team has been very careful to ensure that the corner of the tent dedicated to affirming the life of the spirit will be the province of established religions. The designer, Eva Jiricna, wanted the zone to be 'a contemplative space' that rejected 'religion as dogma'. Jennie Page, the civil servant managing the project, quickly shut her up and hustled her on to the nearest hassock. 'It was clear to me from day one that we needed to accommodate dogma,' Page said. Accommodation meant that the varieties of Christians and Jews, Hindus and Muslims, Buddhists and Jains, and, indeed, Bahai's and Zoroastrians, represented on the 'Lambeth Group' of God botherers that advises the Dome bureaucrats had to find common ground.
The pressure to reach a settlement was financial as well as ecumenical. The Dome has been driven by the hunt for sponsorship. The nation may well be baffled when the show opens on New Year's Eve because the pursuit of money has produced little that is national about the celebration of British national identity. It will be hard to feel bullish for Blighty when the logos of Ford, McDonald's and the Murdoch conglomerate are glowering over the festivities.
The Faith Zone, the dullest stall at the carnival, was in pressing need of a sugar daddy. The shortage of interested backers was so dire, one Dome manager confessed to praying every night for a generous capitalist to save him. Salvation came in the form of the Hinduja brothers - Srichand, Gopichand, Prakash and Ashok - whose oil, communications and banking business has made them the eighth wealthiest family in Britain. They are, obviously, Hindus. But Srichand, a businessman of bipartisan tastes whose soirées have been graced by Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Margaret Thatcher and Lord Archer, said he believed in the 'shared values of each faith'. He wanted the Dome to recognise that the human race must sow the seeds for 'peace development and co-operation'.
The Faith Zone will meet his wishes. Religions that have been (and continue to be) at each others' throats have agreed that they should promote those sayings of Jesus that all can share. There will be no mention of doubters or pagan followers of rival prophets burning in eternal hell fire. Instead, explained Christopher Frayling from the Lambeth Group, the Dome will listen to St Matthew and bless the meek and the peacemakers regardless of their creed.
You would think that only acid cynics could object to these admirable sentiments. But the Dome's corporate populism can petrify the warmest hearts. On Thursday, the Indian government announced that bank documents the Hindujas had spent 10 years trying to keep secret had been delivered to New Delhi. According to an affidavit presented to the Delhi courts on 22 October by the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Hinduja companies were allegedly at the centre of the biggest bribery scandal in Indian history; a case that fuelled a sub-continental arms race that has ended in a terrifyingly unstable nuclear 'balance of power' between India and Pakistan and led to the dimming of the faint of hopes for tolerant, secular politics. The Hindujas have consistently denied any involvement in arms dealing or bribery. The reliance on business sponsorship, motivated as much by a childish wonder before corporate theory and practice as a desire to save public money, might mean that instead of blessing peace-makers, the Dome's critics could soon be able to accuse it of promoting suspects on an arms dealing indictment.
The Bofors affair has been running for so long Western journalists and politicians have all but forgotten it. Yet the allegations of larceny and sweetheart deals have never been absent from Indian politics since 1986 when Rajiv Gandhi's Congress government paid the Swedish armaments manufacturer £802 million for 400 howitzers for the Indian army to use in the endless confrontations with Pakistan. Indira Gandhi's business -friendly son had come to power as a kind of Eastern Blair, promising a new, clean government that would end endemic sleaze and modernise the country. Within months of the artillery being delivered, Swedish radio revealed that £30m of kickbacks had been distributed. Respect for Rajiv's Congress Party, which at least tried to prevent conflict between Hindus and Muslims, collapsed. The Hindu nationalist BJP used Bofors to destroy Congress in the 1989 general election. This year, while Bofors guns pounded Pakistani forces in Kashmir, the BJP revived Rajiv's involvement in the scandal as it trounced his widow, Sonia, at the polls.
The Hindujas names have been linked to Bofors since 1990 when the CBI announced that 'the brothers are believed to be behind secret coded accounts in the name of Pitco/ Moreso/Moineao and AE Services of the UK' through which bribes were allegedly funnelled to Rajiv and his associates. From that moment on, the affair has been stalled in a mire of legal disputes.
The coded-accounts the CBI wanted to inspect were in Switzerland, whose bank doors tend to slam when investigators knock. Undeterred the Indian authorities applied successfully to a Swiss court for access to the accounts. The court said a refusal would only 'delay the criminal investigation being carried out by the Indian authorities'. When I last phoned a Hinduja spokesman , he commented that the BJP kept wanting to revive false accusations against his employers as a stick to beat Congress.
The Bofors stick has been all but splintered in its frequent beatings of Congress in the Nineties. But what has startled Indian journalists is the speed with which the case is now moving after years of stale political rhetoric and legal quibbles. Even before the arrival of the Swiss records, the CBI formally announced in October that Srichand and Prakash Hinduja were under investigation for the alleged transfer of bribes. BJP Ministers have been telling anyone who will listen that they are determined to get to the bottom of Bofors and will have no hesitation in investigating the wealthiest businessmen in the Indian world if the evidence they have support such a course.
In the past few days, CBI and Indian government sources said it will take four weeks to go through the papers and decide if there is enough evidence to lay charges. By my reckoning that takes us to mid-January. The celebrations for the opening of the Dome will still be fresh in the memory. After commending meek peacemakers, St Matthew went on to deliver a warning that organised religion has generally taken as seriously as the New Millennium Experience Company: 'No man can serve two masters. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.'
©Copyright 1999, The Guardian