More trouble for UPA ahead

By securing Natwar Singh’s resignation as external affairs minister, the Manmohan Singh government could be entering uncharted waters. Now the Congress party, the leader of the UPA regime, may expect to come under greater assault by the BJP-led NDA, the country’s principal opposition formation. That was the objective of the main opposition party.

The Volcker Committee, set up by the UN to go into purported irregularities in UN’s Oil for Food Programme (OFFP), had said in its findings that both Singh and the Congress were “non-contractual beneficiaries” of the erstwhile Saddam Hussein regime.

According to the Volcker report, they were given oil quotas which they presumably converted into cash with the aid of international oil traders. The BJP had unleashed a political storm following the publication of the Volcker report and sought an inquiry.

Certainly, there can be no presumption of guilt by the mere mention of Natwar Singh’s name by the Volcker panel, or that of the Congress. They have both asserted their innocence and also said that the Volcker inquiry did not even bother to ask them any questions before mentioning them. Nevertheless, the government has been obliged to name a judicial inquiry under a retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It has also appointed a former under secretary-general of the UN as a special envoy charged with obtaining relevant details from Volcker. Under the circumstances, it was impossible for the external affairs minister to carry on. But Singh has been retained in the cabinet as a minister without portfolio.

Clearly, the government is keen to signal that the government does not view him as guilty, and is taking him out of the Foreign Office to satisfy technical requirements. But the further point cannot be missed that had the government given the impression that Singh was a bribe-taker, the Congress party would be condemning himself. It is also easy enough to see that an inquiry has been set up because the UPA does not wish to give the impression that it is running away from a thorough probe. The BJP has now got an opportunity to rediscover itself. The party is not satisfied with the change in Natwar Singh’s portfolio. It has called for a CBI inquiry against the minister and the Congress party.

Since the Volcker report surfaced, the external affairs minister gave all diplomatic niceties the go-by and made observations that can do him no good. He has suggested that he was being framed because he had opposed the American war in Iraq. He has also said that if there was any attempt to drag the Iran nuclear case to the Security Council rather than settle it at the IAEA, India would oppose the move.

Since the UPA government came into being 16 months ago, it has been cruising along in a steady state atmosphere. But eve nts suddenly appear to be taking an uncertain turn. The difference between now and the time of the Bofors crisis is that a section of Congress’ erstwhile opponents are its allies in government or are supporting it from outside. When the Bofors affair raged, the entire opposition had been up in arms against the Congress.

Sahay, a journalist, writes for THT from New Delhi