The Natwar Singh saga is finally drawing to a close. His decision to move a privilege motion against the prime minister may be a crowning act of folly or the opening salvo of a battle to exact revenge from those who betrayed him. But of one thing there can be no doubt. While Mr. Singh may not have covered himself in glory during his seven month trial by fire, the motives of his detractors and the depths to which they descended to get him out, and keep him out, of the government are a blot on the Congress party and on the media that has hounded him to his political demise.
Typical of the behaviour of his detractors was the way in which Justice Pathak's report was leaked to the media even before the prime minister received it. The visual media was airing bits of the report even as Mr. Pathak was sitting at 7 Race Course Road waiting to meet Dr. Manmohan Singh.
What is more, it was not the whole of the Pathak report but only selected portions that were given to the media. And these were used to create a predetermined spin: Pathak's observation that Natwar misused his official position in writing letters of recommendation for Andleeb Saighal was highlighted, and the significance of his finding that he had found no evidence that Saighal had passed on any of the money to either Natwar Singh or his son, Jagat Singh, was minimised.
The media took the bait hook, line and sinker. Its headlines screamed "Pathak indicts Natwar Singh for misuse of office" , or simply "Pathak indicts Singh". Not one newspaper or channel ran the headline 'Natwar, Jagat took no money'. Natwar's observation that since he was not even a member of Parliament in 2001, the question of his misusing his official position did not arise, was treated with neglect bordering on contempt.
One prominent newspaper even printed an unsourced story that the Enforcement Directorate had not finished with the Singh duo, and implied that it expected to unearth evidence of money transfers to son or father in the near future. Thus if the scaffold was erected by Singh's enemies in the Congress, the lever for the trap door was pulled by the media
This last canard can be laid to rest straightaway. Even the snippets of the Pathak report that have been published show that he has accounted for the whole of the $156,000. It says clearly that this money was divided by Saighal and Aditya Khanna in a specific ratio.
Pathak, who has been an eminent lawyer and a distinguished judge could never have made that remark if there had remained a hole of, say, $50,000 in the money trail that he had not been able to fill. What is more, had there been such a hole, the Enforcement Directorate would have lodged a case against Saighal and Khanna under the Foreign Exchange Management Act long ago. There is only one possible conclusion. Saighal brought all of his earnings back to India and declared them.
Why should a man put his career at risk to help someone secure a trade deal if he derives no benefit from it? Natwar Singh's answer is that while the signatures on the letters are his, the contents have been cooked up by someone else. To Indians who think of Iraq as someone else's problem; are predisposed to treat Washington as the capital of the world and believe that the Olympians who reside there can d no wrong, this suggestion is almost blasphemous.
But the US did try, through a succession of leaks in Al Maada, (known in Baghdad as 'the CIA newspaper'), and later through the Congress' Norman Coleman commission, to indict the British Parliamentarian George Galloway on the basis of documents that turned out to be forged.
A comparison of text of the Volcker report with its footnotes and annexures also reveals how subtly the former was drafted to make all opponents of the US' Iraq policy appear to be corrupt propagandists for Saddam Hussein. The least that the Congress party owed, therefore, to one of its most senior ministers was to examine this possibility threadbare. But the excerpts that have been released so far give no indication that even Justice Pathak has done so. So the question remains unanswered.
But let us assume that Natwar did give those letters of introduction. Apart from the misuse of the Congress party's letterhead, what norm or law or morality did he actually transgress? Iraq was trading in oil legitimately under a UN mandate. Whether wisely or unwisely, the UN had left the selection of buyers entirely to its government. But Iraq was also being bombed daily by the US and UK without a UN mandate.
The US and its proxies had already made five attempts to topple Saddam and in 1998 Clinton had formally put Iraq on notice that the sanctions would never be lifted while he was in power. The world knew this. As a result, support for the sanctions had all but vanished well before January 2001.
Natwar did not change the Congress party's policy on Iraq either before or after visiting Iraq. The Congress party's friendship with Saddam's Iraq was founded on the latter's staunch secularism and support for India in the Organisation of Islamic Countries. And by 1998 there was virtually no support outside the US and the UK for the prolongation of the sanctions because UNSCOM had certified that Iraq had no more WMD production facilities left and only accounting discrepancies on the disposal of its original stocks remained to be reconciled. The most that Natwar did was to use this friendship to help his son's friend. The government could, and should, have ignored this, but the machinations of Natwar's many enemies in the Congress and his own intemperate outbursts foreclosed that option.
* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.
(The author's articles can be read at www.premshankarjha.com)
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articles by Prem Shankar Jha