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Natwar: flip, flop, slip

A curious combination of contradiction and cowardice and of hypocrisy and hubris has pushed Natwar Singh into a hole so deep that no one can pull him out, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Aug 12, 2006 03:36 IST

If you go by the money, this scandal is dirt-cheap. As a former Federal Reserve Chairman, even Paul Volcker would have to agree.     

When you add up the numbers in the oil-for-food scam, Natwar Singh’s political influence helped his son’s friend (and possibly his son as well) make a profit of Rs 75 lakh.

If there’s one thing Natwar Singh is right about, it’s this: there are far worse crimes a politician could commit.

India’s Coal Minister faced charges of murder and massacre and was on the run for ten days before he surrendered to the court. India’s Railway Minister is out on bail and is charged with corruption in a scam that runs into hundreds of crores. India’s Minister of State for Agriculture, described by the legislative committee of his own Assembly as a “habitual criminal”, has nine different criminal cases slapped against him, including murder and extortion.

It’s clear that survival in government is about politics, not principles.

So why is it that no one feels sorry for Natwar Singh?

The former Foreign Minister may be surprised to discover that the answer has more to do with him than with Paul Volcker. A curious combination of contradiction and cowardice and of hypocrisy and hubris has pushed Natwar Singh into a hole so deep that no one can pull him out.

I remember the day I first interviewed him after the controversy erupted. He was still India’s Foreign Minister at the time, and should have weighed each word with caution. Instead,  what followed was an over-emphatic outburst, in which anger alternated with self-pity. His imagined sense of victimhood made it clear that he was what psychologists would call in denial. He described his attitude as one of “controlled indignation”, but as it turned out, there was nothing restrained in what he said.

For a man who signed on an official Congress letter head to pave the way for illegal oil contracts, he should have known it would be sheer suicide to claim the “absolute support of Sonia Gandhi and the Prime Minister”. But not just that, he claimed he had a “long talk” with the Congress President to whom he was “deeply devoted” and she was just as upset as he was.

If that can be explained away as political naiveté, what about his utterances on foreign policy? Remember, he was still the External Affairs Minister and, in a sense, spoke for the entire Indian establishment. But every statement he made was out of sync with the stated position of his own government and ministry. On Iran, he parroted the line of the Left and said India must not vote against Iran at the IAEA; he said the present government of Iraq had “no credibility”; he mourned the disintegration of the Soviet Union and was distinctly undiplomatic in his boast of how he didn’t have to go “running after Strobe Talbott” like the BJP’s Foreign Ministers — the Americans came calling on him instead.

And then there were the lies.

Singh’s onslaught began with an absolute denial. He “did not even know what a barrel of oil looks like”. His family had no “business contacts” with Andaleeb Sehgal and his son had only gone to Jordan because his father-in-law lived there.

There it was — the very first piece of the puzzle that didn’t fit. In a separate interview, Jagat Singh had made no mention of a Jordanian family connection: he had gone to Iraq as a member of the Youth Congress.

And so it began. To follow father and son’s intricate explanations was to wander through an elaborate maze of deceit.

It was in April that we first broke the story of how Natwar Singh had used his position as head of the party’s foreign cell and had written three letters to officials in the Iraqi establishment. We also reported a tip-off from investigating agencies that Jagat Singh had used front companies to make money on the oil deals.

What letters, roared the former Foreign Minister? The family slapped us with a legal notice and took us to court. They generously gave us the option of apologising. We declined, and needless to say they have never given us an interview since.

Now the Pathak Commission has published all three letters. So much for the angry denials.

But both father and son continue to weave a web of untruths.

First, Natwar Singh said he never wrote the letters. Then he claimed the letters were forged. The next variation was that the signatures were his, but the content was not; and then finally, and perhaps exhausted by his own contradictions, he demanded to know what was wrong in writing the letters to begin with.

Not one of us believes that political morality is behind the disciplinary action of the Congress against one of its oldest members. We all know that if the Singhs added to the treasury headcount in Parliament, this story may well have had a different ending.

Even so, as the endgame plays itself out, you can’t help but wonder why Natwar Singh did not look for more dignity, at least, in his departure. Whatever be your reservations on the Indo-US nuke deal, it’s a fact that, as Foreign Minister, it was Natwar Singh who hard-talked Washington into signing on the dotted line. Now to watch him play host to politicians across the ideological divide and add nuclear politics to the dinner menu does everything but give him the legitimacy he’s so desperate for.

And to call the Prime Minister a “weak man” hours after his suspension was, once again, an example of his  cowardice; it was a gun aimed not just at the wrong target but also at a soft one. Everyone knows the decision to suspend him was in the end, a political one; taken right at the top. But of course he dare not say a word against Sonia Gandhi; he is, after all, “deeply devoted”.

If there is anything to feel sorry about in this whole sordid saga, it is just this: Natwar Singh didn’t really slip and fall on an oil spill.

Tragically, he just tripped over himself.

The writer is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7 barkha@ndtv.com