| PICTURE SPEAK |
DOWN AND OUT: It took 40 days for Natwar to finally quit the Cabinet
"I have decided to resign from the Cabinet despite the fact that I have not violated any law."
K. NATWAR SINGH, EX-CABINET MINISTER
For someone who prided himself in having a way with words, this wasn't quite the script that K. Natwar Singh would have liked to pen for himself. As the pressure mounted on the former foreign minister to resign from the Cabinet, he called on UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi late on December 5 and said he had decided to quit. This was after the Opposition brought Parliament to a halt over last week's cover story in India Today that carried fresh revelations on Natwar's role in Iraq's oil-for-food deals.
Natwar had wanted to wait for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's return from Moscow on December 7 to hand over his resignation. But Sonia was adamant that he fax it to the prime minister and make his decision public. Later that night, Natwar told the media: "I have decided to resign from the Cabinet despite the fact that I have not violated any law. I do not wish to be the excuse for the Opposition to stall the functioning of the Parliament. I reiterate that I am completely innocent."
In the magazine's cover story, India's then ambassador to Croatia, Aniel Matherani, had revealed how Natwar had misused an invitation by the Saddam Hussein regime to visit Iraq in January 2001 to work out deals for his relatives. Matherani, who was one of the four Congressmen who went to Iraq on that trip, exposed how Natwar had unilaterally had his son Jagat and a relative, Andaleeb Sehgal, included in the official delegation and ensured that they were present in all meetings with Iraqi leaders. Matherani had charged Natwar of using the trip to get the "green signal" for the profitable oil vouchers being doled out by the then Iraqi government to politicians or parties that they believed would support them.
Confronted with such damning revelations it was apparent that Natwar's continuance as a cabinet minister would become untenable-especially with the Opposition determined to embarrass the Congress in Parliament. But Natwar remained strangely defiant and went on the offensive. In the first reaction to the magazine's report he threatened to sue Matherani and said: "The obvious question to ask is why Matherani gave the interview at this time? If he was so concerned about the matter, why did he not go public earlier? He (Matherani) was in Delhi when the Volcker Report controversy came up." Natwar's supporters said that if he resigned, the Opposition would shift its attack to Sonia as the Volcker Report had also named the Congress party as a beneficiary in some of the deals.
| VOICES |
The political drama unfolded on December 2 when the Opposition kicked up a storm over Matherani's revelations after the India Today issue hit the stands. The Government was clearly rattled and Manmohan held an emergency meeting with his key ministers that included Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and Minister of State for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal. Chidambram provided an update of the investigations. The ministers were apparently split over the course of action. One view was to wait for the investigation to be completed before asking for Natwar's resignation. The other was that the resignation should be sought as a damage control.
It was a tough call. If Manmohan got Natwar to resign on the basis of what Matherani said, then the Opposition would step up its demand to get Sonia to resign from her official posts as well. So the strategy adopted was to seemingly stand by Natwar in public but in private force him to put in his papers. In Parliament the prime minister said: "We should not pre-judge the final outcome of the investigation or pre-empt the findings that may be given by the Justice R.S. Pathak Inquiry Authority. I can assure the House that no one who is guilty will go unpunished." Parliamentary Affairs Minister Priya Ranjan Das Munshi then broadly hinted that the minister could offer to resign on his own.
The Government moved quickly. Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran was instructed by the PMO to immediately ask Matherani to relinquish charge as ambassador to Croatia with simultaneous instructions from the PMO and the Foreign Office to proceed on what is known as "terminal journey". It meant that his services were terminated forthwith and that he should catch the first flight home. Saran made it a point to observe that Matherani had been recalled much before the Volcker controversy had broken out and his replacement had already been announced. When Matherani landed in Delhi on December 3, he was whisked away to a safe house by the Enforcement Directorate (ed) and subjected to marathon grilling sessions. Matherani described the ED's questioning as "sustained and comprehensive" and stated, "I told them what I had to tell them and they asked me what they wanted to ask." Ministerial sources say that during sustained interrogation, Matherani is believed to have corroborated much of the sequence of events that he had outlined to the magazine earlier.
Matherani, however, denies that he had given an interview to India Today and charged the magazine with distorting comments that he had made off-the-record. In a statement to the media, Matherani said: "I gave no interview to India Today. It was an off-the-record conversation and it is completely unethical to have clandestinely recorded an off-the-record conversation and publish it. This is a complete breach of privacy. The magazine has reported and presented my off-the-record conversation totally out of context." He also denied telling India Today that oil vouchers were allotted to the Congress party or to Natwar as stated in the magazine. He added, "This is a complete distortion of facts and total falsehood and fabrication."
India Today had in the meanwhile released to the 24-hour news channel Aaj Tak, excerpts of the taped conversations it had with Matherani when he had spoken to one of these writers over telephone from Zagreb. The conversations clearly established what Matherani had said about Natwar's role in the oil-for-food deals including getting "the green signal" for oil vouchers. India Today in a statement to Aaj Tak said that it stood by its story. There was support for the magazine's stand from other sections of the media as well. M.J. Akbar, editor-in-chief of The Asian Age, wrote in his column: "The denial adds that the interview was 'distorted' and 'misrepresented' and 'out-of-context'. Where? The Matherani denial never explained what had been distorted or misrepresented. As heard on television and published in print, the interview is comprehensive; the questions and answers flow into each other."
Natwar, in the meanwhile, was under intense pressure from within the party to quit and blunt the Opposition attack. Over the weekend, the Congress began a public campaign to distance itself from the erstwhile minister and his son. The former Youth Congress chief Randeep Singh Surjewala was prompted by Congress strategists to make a statement that he had never sent Natwar's son Jagat on a Youth Congress delegation to Iraq. (This is what Jagat had initially claimed). Until now Surjewala had refused to come on record. Jagat backtracked his earlier claim and said, "My father paid for my ticket. I was not part of any Youth Congress delegation."
This was followed by a midnight meeting of the Congress party's Steering Committee at Sonia's residence on December 4. The next day Kapil Sibal announced the decision to drop Natwar from the steering committee and said, "He will understand the circumstances under which the decision was taken and I am sure he will take appropriate steps in the interests of the party."
Natwar understood that all too well. Upset, he is said to have told a friend: "Until now Sonia had not asked for my resignation." His son was less diplomatic. "Who is Kapil Sibal to say what he said about my father?" he asked. By then it was clear that the former minister has few friends left in the party. Surprisingly, it was NCP leader Sharad Pawar who came out in his support. Pawar told Aaj Tak's Seedhi Baat, "The Government was not able to handle the Opposition's attack. It should have waited for the inquiry report to come in before asking Natwar to quit."
Under fire from the Opposition and isolated by his own partymen, Natwar rarely left his house in Delhi's Teen Murti Marg. And when he did, it was to drive to 10 Janpath and tell Sonia that he was finally resigning. What also hastened the decision for the Government is that amongst the 500 pages of documents that former diplomat Virender Dayal returned with from the UN were details of bank transactions in Jordan. A three-member team led by ed Director Sudhir Nath left for Iraq on December 5 to verify the documents.
After Natwar formally handed his resignation to the prime minister on his return from Moscow he said that his personal relations with Manmohan will continue. Reciting an urdu couplet, he said, "Parwana hoon, shama to ho, raat to ho, marne ke liye taiyaar hoon, kuch baat to ho (I am ready for sacrifice if there is a reason for it)." He added that he would complete writing his book, will play with his grandchildren and go for a holiday. But he clearly remains as irrepressible as ever. That same evening at a book release event, he showed some of his old colours, attacking the UN and lambasting the US.
With Natwar's exit, the prime minister has hinted that he might name a new foreign minister soon to attend to key issues. The Indo-US nuclear deal needs to be fixed, as does the agenda for the visits of US President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac in February. Amongst the front runners are Pranab Mukherji, who has had an earlier stint as the foreign minister. Though Chidambaram's candidature cannot be ruled out.
The Justice R.S. Pathak Inquiry Authority has its work cut out. The investigating agencies need more proof of the allocation of oil vouchers and evidence to show how the accused profited from the transactions. It's going to be a tough task ahead.