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The mysterious Congress letter

By T V R Shenoy
December 08, 2005 22:00 IST
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I suppose it is possible that there are some questions which can only be answered by professional investigators. But there are others that the Congress high command can answer immediately. It has been a month since George Fernandes asked Sonia Gandhi a very simple question: 'What was in the letter that Natwar Singh and his merry band took with them to Baghdad in 2001?'

The official story is that Saddam Hussein refused to meet the Congress delegation. This is surprising, tantamount to an insult. However, the interesting thing is that it is flatly contradicted by an NRI businessman based in the Iraqi capital, Hari Darshan Meiji. Meiji, who claims that he hosted the Congressmen for dinner, says that he remembers talk of a letter from Sonia Gandhi being handed over to Saddam Hussein. This was flatly contradicted by Natwar Singh's son, Jagat. Of course, Jagat Singh was also saying that he was in Baghdad as a representative of the Youth Congress -- something flatly contradicted by that group today -- so I really have no idea how much credence we can put in him.

The one fact that everybody agrees about is that there was a letter written by Sonia Gandhi that was addressed to Saddam Hussein. What happened to it? Did Natwar Singh hand it over to one of the Iraqi dictator's underlings? Or did he bring it back to Delhi? And what on earth was in it?

I am fairly sure that there was nothing incriminating in the document. It might have been nothing more than a simple statement of solidarity. I am certain nothing incriminatory would have been put down in such a letter. So, why then is the Congress shying away from answering George Fernandes's question?

The rule of jurisprudence we follow in India states that a person is innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. But there is a second question that the Congress can answer without waiting for Justice Pathak. When did the party get to know that Jagat Singh and his cousin, Andaleeb Sehgal, had accompanied its delegation to Iraq? Aniel Mathrani has now stated, on camera, that he had informed the Congress leadership at least one month ago. He was in Delhi at the time, on one of his frequent leaves of absence from his duties in Croatia, and the Congress allegedly spoke with him at the time. This was actually confirmed by Union Science & Technology Minister Kapil Sibal, in what might have been an unwary remark.

This is interesting. It means that either the prime minister was being misleading when he pleaded ignorance, or it means that the Congress leadership kept Dr Manmohan Singh in ignorance. You will have to check the parliamentary records very carefully, but there is a sniff of breach of privilege in the air about all this. Mathrani's statement was all it took to force Natwar Singh out of the Union Cabinet. But the Congress had known all about it at least a full month ago. Why wasn't Natwar Singh dropped immediately? The time spent demanding Natwar Singh's resignation could have been spent on other issues, couldn't it?

Let us now come the Pathak inquiry itself. The terms of reference specifically preclude it from being a public probe, which means the Congress has only itself to blame should speculation run rife. For instance, exactly how many enquiries have been set in motion, and how much help are the agencies and individuals involved offering to Justice Pathak?

Virendra Dayal, a retired bureaucrat, arrived in New York on November 18, with the stated task of obtaining the relevant documents from the United Nations. He returned a week later, on November 25, claiming that he had got what he had asked for. Have these documents been handed over to Justice Pathak? More to the point, is there any reason why they should not be tabled in Parliament?

The Enforcement Directorate appears to be conducting an independent probe. It has questioned both Andaleeb Sehgal and Aniel Mathrani, each on more than one occasion. Have the results of these conversations been shared with Justice Pathak? If not, does he have the authority to insist that the Enforcement Directorate report to him?

That leaves what is, to me, the most intriguing question of them all. What exactly was India exporting to Iraq? We all understand that either petroleum or hard currency was taken out of that country? But what was sent in? Roughly 40 of the 120-odd Indian firms named as beneficiaries claim that they were exporting tea, several of them specifying that it was 'black tea'. This sounds unlikely, given Iraq's preference for coffee not to mention the state of its ruined economy. So what was in the chests that went out of India? Perhaps the answer lies in another question? What was it that Saddam Hussein's armies needed in those years?

Some of these questions may never be answered. But there are some that can be settled easily enough -- and the Congress need not wait for Justice Pathak's report to answer them.

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T V R Shenoy