In the dock

Published : Aug 25, 2006 00:00 IST

The Pathak report sets off events that culminate in former Minister Natwar Singh's suspension from the Congress.


THE publication of the Justice R.S. Pathak Inquiry Authority report on issues relating to the United Nations Oil-for-Food programme and the political impact it has had are marked by striking contradictions. At one level, the report and the developments in its wake clarified a number of facts relating to the "Indian connection" in the Oil-for-Food programme and crystallised certain political trends associated with it. At the same time, the methods employed in the preparation of the report, the manner in which it got published and the political events that ensued have had intriguing facets and even left a sense of mystery about the larger dimensions of the whole issue. This dichotomy has manifested itself repeatedly right from the evening of August 3, when the contents of the report got publicised through a television news channel even as Justice R.S. Pathak was sipping tea with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after formally presenting the report to the Union government.

The diverse facets of this dichotomy operate at different levels and scales. They have also given rise to a number of acrimonious arguments and counter-arguments involving almost the entire political spectrum of the country. The veracity of many of these arguments has been questioned by the different players. Yet, some data and details have emerged as undisputed facts. The most important among them is, of course, the well-reasoned finding of the Pathak Inquiry Authority that Aditya Khanna, a relative of former External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh, and Andaleeb Sehgal, friend of Natwar Singh's son Jagat Singh, have benefited financially from the Oil-for-Food programme in 2001. There is also no dispute that Natwar Singh, had written three letters in 2001 to the then Iraqi Oil Minister Amer Mohammed Rasheed requesting him to assist Andaleeb Sehgal. The fact that the report was leaked even as it was being presented to the Prime Minister is also indisputable.

The agreement vis--vis the Pathak report and related events stops here. The list of disagreements is much longer. The very basic finding of the report - that Natwar Singh is a non-contractual beneficiary because of the "role played by him in influencing and facilitating the procurement of the contracts" for Sehgal and Khanna - is itself contested. Another important finding of the report - that "there is not a shred of evidence to link the Congress party to the said [U.N. Oil-for-Food] transactions" - has been roundly condemned not only by Opposition parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) but also by Natwar Singh himself.

Criticising the leakage of the report, S.P. leader Amar Singh contended that some portions of the Justice Pathak report itself challenged the clean chit given to the Congress. He pointed out that the very first conclusion listed in the report was that "the documents available with the Independent Inquiry Committee (the Volcker Committee) were authentic and reliable". It also stated that the "documents were genuine and full reliance could be placed upon them by the Inquiry Authority".

Justice Pathak essentially inquired into two contracts mentioned in the Volcker report. The Volcker report had identified Natwar Singh as a non-contractual beneficiary in reference to contract M/09/54 and the Congress party was identified as a non-contractual beneficiary with reference to M/10/57. If the Justice Pathak Inquiry Authority was of the view that "the documents available with the Independent Inquiry Committee (the Volcker Committee) were authentic and reliable", how could it say that "there is no shred of evidence against the Congress party" and that too, with the kind of intensity it has displayed, asked Amar Singh.

Justice Pathak asserts the innocence of the Congress at five places in the three-page conclusion of the report. First, the report states that there is "absolutely no evidence whatsoever to link the Congress party to the transactions discussed", then it asserts that " there is not a shred of evidence to link the Congress party to the said transactions", and again says that "the Inquiry Authority has found no evidence that the Congress party was involved in the Contract and that it derived any benefit from the Contract". The very next sentence says that "indeed, there is nothing to show that the Indian Congress Party had anything to do with contracts M/09/54 and M/10/57. The last reference to the Congress in the conclusions is that "the reference [in the Volcker Committee report] to the Indian Congress Party with respect to contract no. M/10/57 is not justified at all."

Detractors of the report such as Janata Dal (United) leader Digvijay Singh have castigated this repeated assertion of "Congress innocence" as a gesture of obsequiousness to the reigning party.

In fact, the very parameters of the Inquiry Authority have been questioned in the context of this assertion of "Congress innocence". The section of the report that elucidates the "jurisdiction and powers of the Inquiry Authority" makes it clear that though the Committee has been constituted under Section 11 of the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952, Sections 8B and 8C have not been included in the provisions. Which means that procedures such as examination-in-chief, cross-examination or re-examination of deponents were absent during the conduct of the inquiry.

Justice Pathak makes it clear that his jurisdiction was "broadly guided by the fundamental principles of fairness, equity and justice as required by the circumstances". Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee had stated while announcing the institution of the committee in November 2005 that the ``scope of the inquiry authority is very wide as it was not only empowered under Section 11 of the Commission of Inquiry Act but also had provisions to obtain additional powers." But, obviously, the Justice Pathak Committee did not deem it fit even to use all the provisions of the Commission of Inquiry Act. Naturally, there was no question of obtaining "additional powers" as indicated by Pranab Mukherjee.

The net result of all this, according to Opposition leaders such as Yashwant Sinha of the BJP, is that there was no cross-examination of the Congress claims before the Inquiry Authority or any obligation on the side of representatives of the party to tender evidence under oath. Amar Singh is of the view that this has indeed helped the Congress to go scot-free. "It certainly needs to be investigated how these parameters were adopted and accepted," he added.

Adding to these contentious formulations is Natwar Singh's claim that while the signature in the letters to the Iraqi Oil Minister of 2001 was indeed his, the contents of the letter itself was not his. "It is an absolute forgery. Such cut-and-paste jobs are easily possible in our times," he told mediapersons and demanded a separate investigation into the forgery. The letters, as reproduced in the Pathak report, do suggest informal dealings between Natwar Singh and the Minister. There are references to the "cooperation and help" extended to Sehgal by the Iraqi Minister without specifically mentioning what it was all about.

These substantive issues in relation to the Pathak Inquiry Authority, however, were overshadowed in the public debate on the report, essentially on account of the leakage. The leakage question dominated both Houses of Parliament for a considerable period. There were allegations that two former ministerial colleagues of Natwar Singh were involved in engineering the leak of the report. The purported objective was the "early expulsion" of Natwar Singh from the Congress. Jagat Singh went to the extent of naming the Ministers - Kapil Sibal and P. Chidambaram - and even argued that the conclusions of the Justice Pathak report were guided and directed by associates of the two leaders.

Jagat Singh also claimed that he had information that Chidambaram had instructed Enforcement Directorate officials to "fix him". Jagat Singh's allegations were notable in the light of the fact that the conclusions of the Justice Pathak Inquiry Authority have been forwarded by the government to three Central agencies - the Directorate of Enforcement, the Central Board of Direct Taxes and the Central Board of Excise and Customs - for further investigation and action.

The leakage issue gained extra dimensions when Natwar Singh filed a breach of privilege notice against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the Rajya Sabha. Natwar Singh was able to do this historical first - of a ruling party Member of Parliament filing for breach of privilege against his own Prime Minister - on account of the support from the S.P., the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). Though the privilege motion was ultimately rejected by Rajya Sabha Chairperson Bhairon Singh Shekhwat, the Natwar Singh initiative has well and truly helped the three regional parties to cement their association and give their unity concrete political dimensions within Parliament and outside.

The BJP had also gone along with Natwar Singh and the regional parties for quite a distance. However, by the time the privilege notice was taken up there were two views in the party. A section headed by former Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley pointed out that the party's campaign in October-November last year had clearly branded Natwar Singh as a culprit in the U.N. Oil-for-Food scam and that there was no justification in turning around to support him now, whatever the grounds. This view was accepted by the majority in the BJP and hence the party slowly distanced itself from Natwar Singh's campaign.

Natwar Singh had followed up the submission of the privilege notice with two television interviews where he went hammer and tongs at Manmohan Singh. The Prime Minister was described as "backboneless" and as somebody "who knew nothing about foreign policy" and as one who gave up on friends when they faced a crisis. Natwar Singh was promptly suspended from the Congress and asked to explain why he should not be dismissed from the party. During this period, there was considerable speculation that Natwar Singh would break his nearly four-decade-long association with the Congress and join hands with the S.P.

However, the former diplomat tried to retract his extreme expressions by seeking an appointment with the Prime Minister, ostensibly to offer regrets. This was yet another instance of the Pathak report giving rise to mysterious events. By all indications, this retraction was motivated by the apprehensions expressed by Jagat Singh with regard to the prospective action of Central agencies as well as on account of the "good advice " given by Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, highlighting the dangers of an investigation by the Finance Department agencies.

The extreme swings in Natwar Singh's actions, ranging from unqualified aggression against the Prime Minister to apologetic compromise moves, have put a question mark on how the present imbroglio would develop in the days to come. Even if Natwar Singh wants a compromise, it may take a while for the rest of the Congress leadership to accept him.

More important, it may be difficult for Natwar Singh to tone down the ideological questions he had raised as part of his defence against the Pathak report. Throughout the campaign on the leakage issue, Natwar Singh as well as the leaders of the three regional parties who supported him, repeated that one of the factors that motivated the moves against the former External Affairs Minister was his steadfast opposition to the intervention of the United States in India's foreign policy. Specifically mentioned was the opposition to the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal.

Whatever the final moves of Natwar Singh, there is little doubt that the cooperation between these three regional forces on the Natwar Singh issue will work out at the level of larger politics as cooperation with the Left parties, especially in the opposition to the nuclear deal. Among the many intangible consequences of the Justice Pathak report and related events, this could well be a concrete and substantive political development.

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