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A guilt-edged sword

Natwar Singh must, therefore, be presumed innocent till much more evidence is found to sustain his ?guilt?. But guilt of what? asks Prem Shankar Jha.

india Updated: Dec 02, 2005 21:01 IST

Eighteen years ago, a report in a Swedish newspaper, which made a glancing reference to India in an exposé of the corrupt practices indulged in by Swedish arms manufacturer Bofors, set off a bloodbath within the Indian political establishment that put the Rajiv Gandhi government on the defensive, triggered expulsions and desertions from the party, and spawned allegations of personal corruption against Rajiv that took 16 years to clear.

The Congress should have learnt a lesson from that tragic episode, but it does not seem to have done so, for the Volcker report has once again thrown it on the defensive to the point where it seems to be preparing to sacrifice Foreign Minister K. Natwar Singh in an attempt to show how ‘clean’ it has become in its new avatar.

It is not clear at the moment whom the Congress wishes to impress. Is it simply intent upon getting the BJP off its back or is it also keen to impress the US? Whatever the reason may be, a moment’s reflection will show that asking Natwar Singh to resign, or ‘accepting’ his resignation, will have implications that go far, far beyond the incestuous confines of Indian politics. It will, in fact, be a tacit acceptance by India of the US’s moral right to rule the world as its empire.

Legitimisation of the ‘Empire project’ by a country as large and influential as India will isolate Russia and China, and further weaken France and Germany’s flickering resolve to confront the US on this issue. India’s decision could therefore bolster or destroy the attempt, spearheaded by Kofi Annan under a mandate from the United Nations General Assembly, to build a rational, rule-based international order to replace the one that the US destroyed when it invaded Iraq.

If Manmohan Singh does not want to do this, then he must, under no circumstances, take the slightest cognisance of any conclusion that Volcker has arrived at that is based upon information obtained in and from Iraq. It does not matter whether any of it

is true or not, and it does not matter whom the material indicts. For it is a cardinal principle of jurisprudence that information obtained through an unlawful search of any premises cannot, under any circumstances, be admitted as evidence in a court of law. Irrespective of its intrinsic value, the evidence gathered in Iraq by Volcker must be ignored because it has been obtained through an invasion which had no UN or international sanction.

In the last two years, an abundance of evidence has emerged which shows that both Colin Powell at the State Department and, more unambiguously, the British Foreign Office and Lord Butler, the British Attorney General, believed that invasion without a second UN resolution would be illegal. Butler had to be browbeaten by Blair to fall in line. The Bush and Blair administrations tacitly admitted as much by trying each and every stratagem, including bugging Annan’s offices at the UN, to round up at least nine votes to record a ‘moral’ sanction, but failed to get more than four, including their own.

In his report, Volcker has candidly admitted that he and his colleagues did not visit Iraq. All the information on the way in which Baghdad administered the oil-for-food programme was furnished to him by the two Iraqi governments formed under the occupation and the US government whom he thanked in the report for its ‘significant assistance’. Thus any action Manmohan Singh takes upon this information will legitimise the invasion itself.

Had the Natwar affair only have international ramifications, nothing more need have been said. But the BJP has turned it into a domestic issue as well. So a few words also need to be said about the supposed case against him. First, his name surfaced in electronic, not printed, records kept by the Saddam government of its oil for food transactions. This means that there is no document with either Natwar Singh’s signature or handwriting, and so far at least, no money trail that leads to him. Does one have to tell an IT savvy world how easy it is to add or subtract a name in a so-called electronic record?

This warning has to be given because when an earlier attempt was made to discredit and ruin George Galloway, a British Labour MP who resigned from his party and became the most trenchant opponent of Blair and the Iraq war in Britain, all the documents that were given by the occupying powers in Baghdad to the Daily Telegraph (London), the Christian Science Monitor (Boston) and the Daily Mail (London) turned out to be forged. In one, Gallagher’s name had been entered between two lines in a different font of a smaller size, to make it fit. Presenting ‘electronic records’ eliminates the possibility of being found out.

Natwar Singh must, therefore, be presumed innocent till much more evidence is found to sustain his ‘guilt’. But guilt of what? A Swiss company called Masefield bought Iraqi oil from an Indian company called Hamdan exports, which was owned by one Andleeb Saigal, a friend of Natwar’s son Jagat Singh. The fact that Jagat Singh visited Jordan and Iraq several times makes it possible that he was Saigal’s partner. But so what? Jagat Singh may have been trading in Iraqi oil, and to do so his company, or its Swiss principal, may have paid transport and after sales service charges in Iraq which the UN oil for food scheme had not sanctioned. But so were 2,200 of the most reputed firms in the world.

And where does Natwar fit into this? The obvious answer was given by Arun Jaitley: he took money through his son to become a lobbyist for Saddam Hussein and to oppose and eventually stop the NDA government from sending troops to Iraq. This is pure conjecture, for Jagat Singh is an adult, and in Indian politics if the sins of the sons were to be visited on the fathers, there would be no one left who could even stand for an election.

Assuming for the moment that Jagat Singh was trading in Iraqi oil, just how serious was his ‘crime’ of making payments to Iraq? The sheer number of reputed firms involved, and the fact that a very large number were American and British, and not just French or Russian, suggests that the fault lay not with the traders but with the way in which the oil for food scheme had been framed. The omission in the scheme that turned virtually every trader into a criminal was that it did not include any provision for a routine item in all profit and loss accounts, the ‘cost of sales’.

In Iraq , where infrastructure services and most international trade was a monopoly of the State, the money went to the government. This may have been ‘illegal’ but was it immoral? For someone had to meet the in-country transport, storage and distribution costs. That could only be the State, but Iraq had been deliberately bankrupted by international sanctions that, as we now know, lacked even a shred of justification after 1994. Saddam had a government to run, and had in the past financed Iraq’s free schooling, free health and world-class shelter, water and sanitation facilities from the sale of oil. Indeed, the raison d’etre of the sanctions had been to starve his government and bring him to his knees.

One cannot, therefore, dismiss the suspicion that the omission of cost of sales and purchase from the oil-for-food programme could have been deliberate. The US and its allies may have agreed to it because it made them look human. But their intention could have been to prevent it from working.

Saddam Hussein found a way around it, in part at least to keep his State running. And he ran it far better under these inhuman circumstances than the Americans and British have been able to. Extracting money to keep the State viable was not, therefore, a crime. It may even have been the most human thing he ever did.

First Published: Dec 02, 2005 21:01 IST