The probe into the UN Oil-for-food program headed by former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker is over. The Independent Inquiry Committee
submitted its final report on the 27th of October. The push for the probe in the United States was lead by conservatives, and in particular by Norm Coleman, the senator from Minnesota. Claudia Rossett
has been writing stories on the scam for a while now.
The Indian connection to the scandal appears in the annexure to the above mentioned report. It is alleged that the External Affairs minister K.Natwar Singh paid a kickback to Saddam Hussein
through a friend of his son. It is further alleged that the Congress party also paid a kickback to Saddam Hussein through the same individual. The BJP has been quick to pounce on this and has been demanding that Natwar Singh resign from his ministerial post, where he functions as India's official link with other countries.
A few observations can be made of this messy situation.
1) The charges are very serious in nature for a number of reasons. You don't want as the External Affairs Minister of India, or even a memeber of parliament for that matter, a person that accepts money to take a particular position in international fora. Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator and it does not behoove a member of the Cabinet to be pushing Saddam's case.
2) The involvement of the Congress party, if true, might be illegal by Indian law.
3) Natwar Singh's personal issues may start to affect, if they haven't already, India's credibility and stature at international fora. At a very crucial time for Indo - US relations, with the recently announced nuclear deal hanging in the balance, the news of Natwar Singh's possible involvement in the scam is bad news. Any nuclear deal that the White House concluded with India has to be ratified by the US Congress. The major push for the independent inquiry by Volcker came from influential Republican Congressmen and Senators. Natwar Singh, being India's External Affairs Minister, will be the point man on India's side to see that the deal is ratified. The US congress might not be too keen to ratify the deal if Natwar Singh continues to remain in his post and India does not launch any investigation into the allegations.
The PM Dr.Manmohan Singh has a lot invested in the nuclear deal and wouldn't want to jeopardise it. But he has already given a clean chit to Natwar Singh before any investigation. Isn't there a disconnect there?. There isn't if the PM has reasons to be believe that Natwar Singh is completely innocent. The government has asked India's envoy to the UN, Nirupam Sen, to meet Volcker and Kofi Annan, and request details of the allegations. The government has to order an investigation if anything that Natwar Singh told Dr.Singh doesn't match with what Volcker tells the Indian envoy to UN.
4) The BJP needs to calm down a bit. The charges are serious in nature and deserve an investigation. But it should wait for the Indian envoy to report back to the government what he has heard from Volcker. The presumption of innocent until proven guilty has to apply here.
5) Natwar Singh's statement attacking the credibility of Volcker and the current Iraqi regime (which supposedly supplied the material on which the annexure of the report wasd based on) do not befit a former diplomat (Natwar Singh is a former Indian Foreign Service member). It also does India's chances of getting a permanent seat at the UN no good if he is shooting off his mouth. The Congress party would be also be well advised that the national interest precludes it from serving the UN with a legal notice prematurely. If the allegations turn out to be based on forged documents or just false for any other reason, the Congress party and Natwar Singh have reason to be aggrieved and can approach the UN for remedy. But serving the UN with a legal notice is a dubious approach.
6) If Natwar Singh does not step down, India's national interest can possibly
suffer significant setbacks. If he does step down, there would seem to be a presumption of guilt on his part by the BJP particularly and it would be an injustice to the minister. The PM could announce that Natwar Singh will step down from the post for now and will regain his ministerial berth pending his name being cleared by an investigation. It would still give the opposition something to beat the government over the head with, but in the national interest this has to be done.
7) It remains to be seen whether the UN would take any action based on the report, or they follow the time honoured tradition of Governments all over the world ignoring the recommendations of inquiry commissions they have setup. It wouldn't be a surprise if the UN did just that - after all the UN is a kind of world government.