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A ritual sacrifice

What, ask the wags, was the higher crime and misdemeanour of Paul Volcker in the eyes of K. Natwar Singh? There was Volcker?s admission that during an 18-month long investigation he and his 70 staffers never realised Singh was the Indian foreign minister.

india Updated: Dec 03, 2005 18:06 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

What, ask the wags, was the higher crime and misdemeanour of Paul Volcker in the eyes of K. Natwar Singh? There was Volcker’s admission that during an 18-month long investigation he and his 70 staffers never realised Singh was the Indian foreign minister. Then there was the one-line mention of Singh as a “non-contractual beneficiary” in the inquiry’s annexure into the oil-for-food programme.

The irony is that the two are not unrelated. If a bird had whispered in Volcker’s ear as to who Singh was, it is quite likely the former US central banker would have given him the benefit of doubt.

Volcker saw his task as reforming an institution, not chasing criminals. “Our focus was mainly on how the programme was manipulated and corrupted by Saddam Hussein… and what went on within the UN,” he said. It wasn’t about reaching “conclusions of guilt and innocence”.

He treated every political figure whose name was found in the files of the Iraqi State Oil Marketing Organisation with kid gloves. They were all sent a note and their explanations accepted without a murmur.

The most flagrant case was that of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. Volcker says he had doubts Annan didn’t know that his son, Kofo, was in the kickback business. But when the UN chief requested he water down criticism of Annan, Volcker said fine. The investigator believed Kofo’s misdeeds weren’t worth toppling the secretary-general.

Volcker simply wasn’t interested in going after people. Most of the staffers who resigned in protest from his inquiry team were Americans steeped in that country’s special prosecutor culture. For them, the endgame was put evil-doers behind bars.

Volcker, far from being a misguided missile, comes out as a liberal internationalist grossly respectful of the UN and people in power. Too bad, then, he had never heard of K. Natwar Singh.

Volcker’s ignorance then left Singh exposed to a genuinely remorseless force: Indian public opinion. All the money earned by the various Indian entities listed in the annexure are loose change compared to the billions earned by their Russian, French and Chinese counterparts.

But India has been the first country to force a political figure from office.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is probably right to say this reflects well on India. But it does raise a question. Why is the Indian polity so uncompromising about financial wrong-doing at the highest level? To the point that appearance is almost as important as genuine guilt. Political scientist Paul Brass, commenting on the moral streak in Indian politics, compared it to that of the United States.

One reason is the legacy of the Independence movement. The leaders of the Congress at that time, whether it was M.K. Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru or Sardar Patel, put an enormous premium on taking the highest ethical path.

This was not just a matter of conscience. From the viceroyalty of Lord Curzon onwards, British colonialists had shifted the moral case for empire from “the White man is a superior administrator” to “the White man is morally superior”. Gandhi, in particular, understood the need to undermine this argument.

Another reason is the modernising impulse. Countries like India and China with rapidly expanding middle-classes develop rigid self-images of what their country should be like. The contrast is a Russia or France where minimal expectations regarding the future go with a blasé attitude towards political scandal.

Having tainted leaders hurts this nationalist sentiment the most. It is wholly out of proportion to the actual economic costs of bribe-taking. For example, studies say Indians pay $ 4.6 billion in bribes a year, which is probably less than the economic damage of the country’s bad roads. Beijing tries to appease its public by executing anyone who takes a bribe of more than $ 12,000 — the death toll runs into hundreds per month.

New Delhi prefers to take the less traumatic path of judicial inquiries and the Central Bureau of Investigation. But ruling parties take special care to keep the prime ministership and the four key portfolios — foreign affairs, finance, home and defence — above reproach. When the sniff of scandal reaches these levels, business as usual grinds to a halt. Policy-making is reduced to damage control.

What is curious, if touching, is that even the most cynical countries tend to put their foreign ministers in a special category all of their own. It’s only a foreign minister who, if he mangles his grammar, or gets a bit tipsy, or otherwise strays from the straight and narrow, is denounced as having brought shame to his country. If a water resources minister makes a hash of what is otherwise a life-necessary commodity, he’s likely to be buried on page 11.

But these days foreign ministers have more to worry about than being the country’s external face. A post-modern world where moral sentiment creeps across borders has provided more reason why senior ministers need to be Caesar’s wife squared.

A lot of politics is about ritual. And, barring some ancient religious orthodoxies, nothing can quite match the rituals that accompany politics between nations. Like a shaman who is seen to have lost his link with the gods, a foreign minister with even a breath of scandal loses his ability to carry out the rituals connected to his office.

Consider the slow death of Kurt Waldheim. Better known as a UN Secretary General, after 1986 he was elected president of Austria. However, it soon came out that he had lied about his service in a German paramilitary unit that had committed atrocities during World War II.

Though the late Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal and an international commission of historians cleared him of having blood on his hands, it didn’t really matter. Country after country said he wasn’t welcome. Every press conference Waldheim held, every ribbon-cutting event he attended and any speech he made became an endless interrogation about charges he could never disprove. During his one term as president, Waldheim barely stepped out of Austria or received any foreign head of State. Perception was his reality.

Volcker, no stranger to high office, understood the damage that his report could do to governments and individuals around the world. He clearly went out of his way to avoid being a wrecker ball through the international system. He did his best to shield the UN as an institution. “Although there is a great deal of corruption in the world, the United Nations must be held to a higher standard if it is to command the respect it needs to function effectively.” In the oil-for-food programme “it fell short of that standard”. But he tried to divert any fallout of his report, insisting that the programme’s failings were “not equivalent to finding corruption throughout the UN”.

K. Natwar Singh, in many ways, was a victim of a new India, impatient with the intricacies of justice and driven by an uncompromising sense of nation. The man who would have probably liked to have saved him was Paul Volcker. But he didn’t know who Singh was. And this, to use the words of the former foreign minister, was “not a case of ignorance is bliss”.

First Published: Dec 03, 2005 18:06 IST