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Correct me if I?m wrong

Has Justice Pathak been unfair to Natwar-Singh whilst giving a substantial benefit of doubt to Congress? That?s the one niggling concern I cannot shake after reading his report, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Aug 29, 2006 17:06 IST

Has Justice Pathak been unfair to Natwar-Singh whilst giving a substantial benefit of doubt to Congress? That’s the one niggling concern I cannot shake after reading his report. I’m not a lawyer — nor am I a master of detail — but my layman’s impression is that there is some basis to this concern.

The core of the case against Natwar-Singh is that he introduced Andaleep Sehgal to the Iraqi Oil Minister and wrote letters asking that “full assistance and cooperation” be accorded to him. Even though the letters don’t mention oil it’s assumed this is what they were getting at. So when Andaleep was granted oil deals Justice Pathak concluded Mr. Natwar-Singh’s letters achieved their purpose.

The Pathak Report states “Shri Natwar Singh... was a beneficiary in so far that the role played by him in influencing and facilitating the procurement of the contract had fructified.” Elsewhere it claims: “Had Shri Natwar Singh not met the Iraqi Oil Minister... there would have been practically no possibility of Hamdaan Exports obtaining the contract”.

The issue turns on how you interpret Natwar’s letters. You could argue, as I did when I interviewed him, that his language is a coded request for oil. But that would be an interpretation not a statement of fact. It therefore needs corroboration. Justice Pathak finds this in the fact that two of Natwar Singh’s letters led, within a short time span, to finalisation of contracts.

But a contrary case could be made if you look at Andaleep Sehgal’s affidavit to the Pathak Inquiry. It claims, in para 2.8, that Andaleep went to Iraq intending to supply food and other products but was first required to enter into an oil deal. The State Oil Marketing Organisation (SOMO) official he met “suggested that if I (Andaleep) could arrange sale of oil then I would qualify for supplying food and other products as a quid pro quo... the only possibility for me to supply food stuff would be if I could arrange for a United Nations registered oil company to lift crude oil”.

Justice Pathak’s report does not include Andaleeb Sehgal’s affidavit nor, as far as I can tell, refer to it by name. Presumably this is because Justice Pathak did not take it seriously. But the problem is that the affidavit questions the claim that Andaleep was seeking an oil deal and Natwar misused his office to help him. Since that is the core of the case against Natwar, Justice Pathak needs to explain why the affidavit is not given proper consideration. Because he failed to do so he can be accused of being less than fair.

Now, let’s turn to Congress. On page 67, para 15.8, the Pathak Report, with reference to contract M/10/57 for one million barrels of oil, asserts that the Executive Director of SOMO sought the Iraqi Oil Minister’s approval claiming it was “for the benefit of the Indian Congress Party”. After stating that he doesn’t know how Congress’s name has been mentioned, Justice Pathak asserts “the reason is that Shri Natwar Singh and Shri Jagat Singh so projected themselves that the Iraqi authorities formed the impression that (they) were representatives of the Congress Party.” In other words the Iraqis mistakenly attributed the oil contract to Congress whereas it was intended for Natwar-Singh. And thereafter the Pathak report does not inquire any further.

But is Justice Pathak’s assertion sufficient explanation? Given that Anil Mathrani had claimed last December that Congress was involved shouldn’t Justice Pathak have dug a little deeper? If only to remove all doubt, surely, the answer is yes.

In fact what fuels further concern is that Justice Pathak has also chosen not to fulfil the fourth item in his terms of reference whereby he was required “to inquire into any other aspect or matter relevant to the inquiry pertaining to contract No. M/10/57”. Had he done so, I presume he would have had to inquire more diligently into the phrase “for the benefit of the Indian Congress Party”. By ignoring this item he’s provoked some people to question if it was done deliberately.

Of course, I’m only raising doubts that have occurred to me as I read the report. If they’re based on a misunderstanding of the findings or how inquiries are conducted, I could be wrong. But if the concerns are substantiated then, undoubtedly, they need explanation. There may well be a simple answer but it needs to be given. Till that happens the doubts remain.