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Out, damned spot!

It was all our fault. Again. The strange beast called Television News was apparently hungry for headlines and so it went and put Paul Volcker on the menu for dinner-table debate.

india Updated: Dec 03, 2005 12:46 IST

It was all our fault. Again. The strange beast called Television News was apparently hungry for headlines and so it went and put Paul Volcker on the menu for dinner-table debate. So what if ten days after we had first discovered he existed,likeall good Indians, we still can’t quite say his name right?

The crescendo of controversy has finally come down a few octaves, but was this really music made by the media; the ‘feeding frenzy’ of sensation-starved newshounds?

No. It was, and is, a legitimate news story; an Arabian Nights dance of so many veils that it demanded the steady and prying hands of the media to uncover it. No self-respecting journalist could have coyly looked the other way. This was a story that came with the scent of a scandal so strong that any suspicious nose would chase it all the way down the alley.

But that’s about the only answer that has either clarity or certainty. The other questions persist, and everyday, new ones join the queue.First, how deep should we be drilling?

In the past fortnight, as we navigated our way through the maze of contract numbers and columns; as we made sense of the conflicting camps within the Congress, and tried to remain unscathed by the palace intrigue of politicians, my needle of moral outrage is still trying to find a hook to settle in. It’s pretty obvious that someone is hiding something.The question simply is just how many people are in on the secret, and how deep does it run.

No, it’s clearly not as simple as saying ‘the butler did it’.Sure, there are the obvious suspects, but as the web of intrigue widens everyday, you are left wondering, is Andy Sehgal the spider who wove it all together, or simply the fly?

Every day, the Volcker odysseyseems to sail to new shores, bringing aboard a new character to the unfolding drama. Now Rotterdam-based oil company, Vitol, seems to have joined the ensemble performance. Volcker’s script casts it in the role of the big-bucks shopkeeper, the company that eventually bought the oil or at least a part of it, from Natwar Singh and the Congress.

The stage whispers are getting louder and louder: why has Natwar Singh become the only protagonist in the Indian edition of the Volcker best-seller? Was he being made the scapegoat for the party? If he was guilty, was the Congress any less guilty? If he was innocent, why didn’t they do a better job of defending him? Or did the answer simply rest closer home, so to say?

The obvious next question. Is oil thicker than blood, thicker than water? In the end, like all ancient tales, this one too seemed to be about Friends and Enemies, Loyalty and Betrayal, and Fathers and Sons — proud fathers pulling the weight of their errant children, the honour of their pinnacle years stained by the impetuous vagrancies of their very own.

Or perhaps, just the classic political story of the fall from grandeur; the loneliness of the once-powerful, still clinging on to hope.

When Natwar Singh finally agreed to give me an interview, I remember being more surprised than he was at his readiness to talk. Looking back, I’m sure he agreed precisely because, though he hadn’t admitted it to himself, he realised he had been abandoned by his party.

Two men watched over us, hawk-like, as we sat in the warm glow of his book-lined library, the Gandhi on the wall, and the minister’s son, Jagat Singh.

To those who have wondered, no, he did not screen or censor my questions, or even rehearse his answers. Instead Natwar Singh, sat upright in his chair, stared me straight in the eye, his red silk scarf just right, his bandgala without a crinkle, a combative 76 — indignant, insulted, irate. Not Guilty, and he would prove it, that’s what his glare said.

Over the the next 30 minutes, he made some serious strategic errors, which even I didn’t realise immediately. He blundered gravely by claiming the absolute support of the Congress president and the prime minister, at a time when, many say, they had already indicated to him that he would have to go. Even costlier would prove to be his olive branches to the Left — comments on Iran, Russia, America, emotionally articulated, but out of sync with stated foreign policy. Anger and hurt had clearly got the better of the ‘controlled indignation’.

But interview done, he wanted me to see the Tagore on his wall, the portrait with E.M. Forster at Cambridge, and on the mantlepiece, Mao Zedong and the trip to China, and, of course, all his books. He really did believe he would not just fight the fight, but also win it. Shakespeare wrote for moments like this. The hubris, and then the inevitable fall, the isolation waiting to swallow the sense of self-worth. But I still went home with nagging questions in my head. Was somebody being just a little too slick?

How about Paul Volcker himself? I remember feeling an overwhelming irritation when he declared to the barely concealed laughter of an adoring audience in NewYork that he didn’t know who India’s foreign minister was. And if that was just quintessential American arrogance, the more serious charge followed — that he had “tempered down” parts of his exposé to not make things too hot for the UNchief whose son’s name figured in the scam. Besides, what exactly was theUN doing when Saddam was making quick cents on the side? Why didn’t it step in then? Why did it allow Saddam to choose whom he could sell oil to?

And though this time, it was an oil spill, was anyone else in thepolitical firmament really ‘stainless’? In our newsroom, we violently debated the contours of moral impropriety. Whyweren’t other members of the cabinet forced out with the same pressure?Did the mass vote base of a LaluPrasad Yadav, for example, make his corruption more acceptable? Were the goons used by Ramvilas Paswan’s army in Bihar not deserving of the same or more outrage? Was it easier for middle-class India and the English media to make the urban politician more accountable? How could the NDA that continued with charge-sheeted ministers in office really steal the higher moral ground? What were the links, if any, between Reliance and Vitol? Why were most of the 125 Indian companies, also accused of paying bribes, unmoved and untouched by all the sound and fury?

But these arguments needn’t make the Congress complacent. The bad news is that journalists who are grappling with so many unanswered questions will simply continue to snoop about and dig out secrets from dusty old corners of history. The probe is a good start, as is the decision to make public the letters Sonia Gandhi wrote to Saddam. Next, the Congress must set the record straight on whether there was ever an official Youth Congress delegation to Iraq, and whether Jagat Singh was meant to be a part of it; it must also open its accounts from those years to public scrutiny.

Otherwise, sandwiched between a Supreme Court judgment on Bihar and the Iran vote, the Congress and the government may find, when Parliament starts, that while water flows under the bridge, oil can still go up in flames.

The writer is Managing Editor of NDTV 24x7