Late Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi linked to arms deal

Former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, whose family still dominates India's ruling Congress party, may have been a middleman for an arms deal in the 1970s, according to diplomatic cables published Monday.

The Hindu newspaper, accessing information compiled and published online by WikiLeaks, cites confidential US embassy cables stating that Gandhi was employed by Swedish group Saab-Scania to help sell its Viggen fighter jet.

Gandhi, who was then outside politics and working as a commercial pilot, was the "main negotiator" for Saab-Scania and was paid because of his access to his mother Indira Gandhi who was prime minister at the time, the cables say.

They cite information given by Swedish embassy officials but also state that US officials were unable to confirm or deny the information.

"We would have thought a transport pilot is not the best expert to rely upon in evaluating a fighter plane, but then we are speaking of a transport pilot who has another and perhaps more relevant qualification," a US diplomat was quoted as noting wryly in one of the cables.

Veteran Congress party politician Rasheed Masood dismissed the allegations. "This is a nonsensical matter and we don't comment on such reports," Masood told India's Asian News International (ANI) news agency.

The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party called for an investigation into the matter. "It is an allegation, very serious allegation" about the former prime minister of India, party vice president Balbir Punj told ANI.

"The least the government can do is to order an independent inquiry... so that we know what the facts are."

Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991. His Italian-born widow Sonia is now head of the Congress party and their son Rahul is positioned as a prime ministerial candidate before elections scheduled for next year.

After entering politics reluctantly, Rajiv was later tarnished by a scandal involving Swedish gun manufacturer Bofors, which was accused of paying bribes to middlemen including an Italian businessman close to the Gandhis.

The Congress party lost the 1981 general elections, a defeat partly attributed to the Bofors scandal.

Saab-Scania ultimately lost in its bid to sell its Viggen jets to India. British-made Jaguar planes were selected for the tender.

WikiLeaks sent shockwaves around the diplomatic world in 2010 when it released a set of more than 250,000 leaked US cables.

The records published on Monday, which date from the beginning of 1973 to the end of 1976, were not leaked and are available for viewing in the US national archives.