When foreign minister SM Krishna visited Malaysia last May, as usual he carried gifts representing the finest traditions of India's craftwork on behalf of the Indian government for the dignitaries he was to meet.
The Malaysian prime minister, foreign minister and home minister among others were given these mementoes.
It now appears that not only were the gifts billed to the government at highly inflated costs, they were also of very poor quality. Rules like buying from state emporia and not using private suppliers — set by the minister himself — had also been violated. Some officials at the external affairs ministry's protocol division — unconcerned with India's image and prestige — could be involved.
This has been revealed by an internal probe ordered by Krishna as well as investigations done by Hindustan Times.
The same division also has a major role in preparing gifts the president, vice-president and prime minister give to foreign dignitaries.
The probe into the gifts for Krishna's Malaysia trip revealed that, for instance, a nakkashi silver bowl was billed for Rs 40,000. This bowl sparked off suspicion since its base was of "yellowish metal", indicating it was brass rather than pure silver. The bill (no. P 1320, dated March 29, 2011) shows it was bought from the Assam emporium.
But the ministry's probe team found the bowl was directly sold to the ministry officials by a supplier to the Assam emporium. The probe team also found the silver used in the bowl was far below requirement.
After evaluation by jewellers, it was found that it was worth at most Rs 14,000.
Several such items were found during the investigation (see box), which has so far only looked at the leftover gifts that were brought back from two of Krishna's trips, Malaysia and Myanmar, as well as a secretary's visit to several Latin American and Caribbean countries.
It is unclear yet if the probe is going to be taken further, even though it has revealed a scam that could embarrass India abroad.