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Natwar Singh and the Oil Slick

There comes a time for every Govt when media decide that they are bored, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jan 05, 2006 19:13 IST

There comes a time in the life of every government when the media decide that they are very bored. Generally, this phase occurs at a time when things are going well. Governments regard such a situation as being ideal. But for journos, this represents Page One hell.

If everything is fine then what are we going to write about? How do the countless 24-hour news channels fill up their air-time? Surely, there must be some excitement that we can create!

My guess is that the Manmohan Singh government has now entered this phase. There are simply no long-running or exciting stories to focus on. The rise and fall of the Sensex has become a bore. There’s only so much you can write about the Congress’s problems with the Left. And while a bomb blast or an earthquake might provide a temporary respite from the drought of good stories, the media need something juicy, something they can get their teeth into.

Unless you understand this phenomenon — and very few people outside the media realise how subjective and skewed our priorities can be — you will not make any sense out of the press’s obsession with the Natwar Singh/Iraq oil story.

Last Saturday, when The Hindu first ran the news, the media were temporarily distracted by a train accident and serial bomb blasts in Delhi. For two days, Natwar and the Iraq oil allegations were relegated to the bottom of Page One and the second half of every news bulletin.

But once it was clear that the Delhi Police were no nearer catching the bombers and that the only stories emanating from that tragic attack were human interest pieces, the channels began looking at the Natwar story again.

Of the two major political parties in the country, only one has any understanding of how journalism really works. The Congress still hasn’t realised that Doordarshan has lost its monopoly and that we now exist in a 24-hour news cycle. The BJP, on the other hand, recognises that news television is a hungry monster, constantly looking for new stories to feed on.

So, as interest in the blast stories subsided, Arun Jaitley — still the most media-savvy and the brightest of the new BJP generation — decided to revive the Natwar Singh issue. As BJP leaders demanded Natwar’s resignation, the media scented blood.

Jaitley has some experience of long-running international political scandals — remember

Bofors? — and so, he played it just right, calibrating his statements so that the press kept coming back for more. In contrast, the Congress blundered badly. Even though the party itself was the subject of one of the allegations, it did not recognise the importance of sending young and articulate spokespeople to the television studios. Instead, we got blanket denials read out solemnly at 24, Akbar Road — the kind of media strategy that would only have worked in the early days of All-India Radio.

As far as I can tell — and I have to be honest, my eyes glaze over when I get into the details of this very complicated scandal — the allegation is as follows: some people claiming to represent

Natwar Singh got the Iraqis to sell them oil, in 2001, at well below the international price. This oil was then re-sold via a Swiss firm called Masefield AG and the lucky beneficiaries of the cheap oil made a tidy profit. Somebody also claimed to represent the Congress party and got some more cheap oil out of the Iraqis. As this oil was also re-sold via Masefield, it seems reasonable to assume that the same people claimed to represent both Natwar and the Congress party.

You can treat this as a minor matter. In those days, the Congress was not in power and Natwar was out of office. If the allegation that his son Jagat was the man who claimed to represent his father (and perhaps the Congress) is valid — and so far there is no proof of this — then the worst that can be said is that the son of an Opposition politician used his father’s contacts to make a quick buck. There is no question of corruption because not only was Natwar out of office but nobody thought it at all likely that the Congress would win the next election or that Natwar would ever become a minister again.

Nor was there any obvious quid pro quo. To say, as the BJP does, that Natwar opposed the Iraq invasion because his son had dealt in oil is silly. Most of India — and much of the BJP — also opposed George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. But none of us had any access to cheap Iraqi oil.

The Congress seems to have decided that even if the charges are valid they don’t amount
to a big deal. Hence, the party’s relatively low-key response to the scandal.

While this attitude may well have worked in the early days of the Manmohan Singh government, when the honeymoon was on, I think that it is a serious mistake for the Congress to continue acting as though the scandal is going to go away. The media’s mood has changed. Everyone is hungry for a juicy story. Nobody is going to let go of the Natwar-Iraq controversy so easily.

Worse still, the BJP knows how to manipulate television’s hunger. Each day, its spokespeople step up the aggression and launch new attacks. They remember Bofors only too well. And they know that if they can suggest that the Congress party and the foreign minister were willing to sell out India’s interests for barrels of oil, they will touch a patriotic chord.

In the circumstances, it is foolish for the Congress to repeat the mistakes it made during Bofors. When Swedish Radio first announced, in 1987, that Bofors had paid kickbacks to secure the Indian contract, the Congress’s response should have been: We will investigate the allegations and get to the bottom of the issue. Instead, it rubbished the report without any investigation and, within a few weeks, its spokesmen were talking about a CIA plot to destabilise India.

For Congressmen to repeat the I-blame-the-CIA defence is nothing short of suicidal. Nobody is willing to believe — without any proof — that either the United Nations or Paul Volcker has it in for Natwar Singh or that Volcker is a CIA stooge.

Far better to do what Sonia Gandhi says she is planning.

We may laugh at the notion of somebody sending a legal notice to the UN. But at least it represents an attempt to find out who it was who approached the Iraqis and claimed to represent the Congress.

I don’t think Sonia will stop there. Nor do I think that Natwar Singh will be content to keep repeating the denials of the past week. He is, essentially, an honourable man who has no interest in making money illegally.

My guess is that sooner rather than later, Natwar will go to the Prime Minister, will offer to step down, and ask Manmohan Singh to appoint an independent investigator to get to the bottom of this scandal. Somebody needs to go to America to meet Volcker and to look at the evidence he’s collected. Similarly, we should send investigators to Iraq to discover which Indians benefited from Saddam Hussein’s largesse.

Sonia Gandhi has said she has nothing to hide. I believe her.

I don’t think that the party authorised anybody to collect money on its behalf. But somebody did collect the money. Sonia must act on her determination to find out who it was.

The Congress has already wasted a week. If it waits any longer, this scandal will spiral out of control. Far better for the government to appoint a credible, independent investigator right away. If the report exonerates Natwar — and he seems sure it will — then he can always return to the Cabinet.

But with the media on a feeding frenzy, the Prime Minister must act now.

First Published: Jan 05, 2006 19:13 IST