Late Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi linked to arms deal: Report

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

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

Mr Gandhi, who was then outside politics and working as a commercial pilot, was the "main negotiator" for Saab-Scandia 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.

Mr Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991. His Italian-born widow Sonia is now head of the ruling 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 elections in 1989, a defeat partly attributed to the Bofors scandal.

Saab-Scandia ultimately lost in its bid to sell its Viggen jets to India.

British-made Jaguar planes were selected for the tender.

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