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Natwar case: What Indian laws have been broken?

By Anand K Sahay
Last updated on: November 08, 2005 18:25 IST
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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi are naturally keen to show that they are responsive to public worries about possible wrongdoing by individuals in high positions.

Presumably, this is a lesson learnt from the Bofors affair when the Rajiv government had managed to give the impression that it was wary of an enquiry though the prime minister should personally have had little to fear, as subsequent events showed.

However, it is reasonably clear that there will not be enough material for those conducting a probe into allegations thrown up by the Volcker report. For this reason, a government decision to announce an inquiry can only be a political move to counter an incipient political campaign.

The Volcker Report: Complete coverage

Such a probe can't possibly hope to settle the issues involved on merits, as far as India is concerned. In this context it is important to keep in mind that there will be a difference between the objectives of a proposed Indian inquiry and those that the Volcker panel had to keep in view. This is a significant distinction.

While it was enough for the UN-authorised investigation to show that the Saddam Hussein regime was able to beat the Oil For Food Programme, OFFP, rules and make tidy sums for itself, an Indian inquiry will have to actually establish individual culpability, if the issue has to be dealt with on merits.

This cannot be done if constraints are placed on the fact-finding effort either by way of access to documents or to material witnesses. Obvious questions then arise as to the nature of the documents that can be called up and the witnesses who can be obliged to answer summons.

It is plain enough to see that the demand for investigating Natwar Singh and any other Indian entity for receiving bribes from the erstwhile Iraq regime is, in effect, asking for an inquiry into the inquiry conducted by the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve into UN's Oil for Food Programme, and then going beyond it.

Since the Americans are in occupation of Iraq, the UN-sanctioned Volcker Committee was able to lay its hands on purported documents of the Saddam Hussein regime. Will these be available for an Indian probe?

Some news reports suggest that the Volcker panel is ready to share material that deal with Indian entities and individuals. But, frankly, is this good enough? After all, can an inquiry committee be satisfied knowing from the start that it won't get to see all the documents in a matter with wide ramifications?

Besides, how will it be determined that the records shared by the Volcker team do indeed cover all the documents that might concern the possible India links of the OFFP, unless the Indians have had the chance to examine the entire cache?

There is another consideration as far as the paper trail goes. An Indian inquiry will need to confirm -- and not just take at face value, as has lamentably been the tendency in the country -- that the documents cited by the Volcker Committee do indeed make up a complete whole, incorporating the proof for the allegations being made.

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For this to happen, the Iraq papers Volcker says he has looked at will have to be put through a process of scrutiny and corroboration in order that their authenticity and relevance may be established. Can this be possible unless all Iraqi official papers pertaining to oil transactions of the relevant period, and not just those consulted by Volcker, are also made accessible to an Indian inquiry panel?

Volcker himself says he has merely recorded what he found in the Iraq documents he came across, and was not seeking to pass value judgements. This certainly cannot form the basis of an indictment against anyone. It is important to keep this in view. Nailing down possible wrongdoing by any Indian entity will necessarily have to be a far more painstaking proposition.

On the face of it, it is hard to imagine that the kind of records needed to establish bribe collection by any Indians will indeed be made available. This promises to be a real difficulty for any inquiry that might be set up.

Just as hard might be getting all the relevant people -- Iraqis and others -- to take the witness stand. At any rate, they cannot be compelled to do so. Subpoenaing them is out of the question, of course. It is a preposterous idea, for instance, to think that Volcker himself can be persuaded to tender evidence. And, mind you, without the chairman of UN's OFFP inquiry panel stepping forward, no meaningful probe can be conducted for our purposes.

This is for starters. Any serious Indian inquiry will also have to go into the maze of bank accounts and company records of the hundreds of international business entities cited by the Volcker Committee.

Congress' idiotic threat to the UN!

In the overall context of the demand for an Indian inquiry, it is pertinent to remember that the allegations levelled against Natwar Singh do not suggest even remotely that Indian tax payers' money has been embezzled. It is also just as doubtful that any Indian laws have been violated. This brings up more questions.

For instance, what is the kind of forum that can be charged with conducting the suggested probe, and under what authority? What powers can such a probe body be invested with, and what jurisdiction will it enjoy, especially overseas where most of the fact-finding is likely to occur? Can the findings of such a body -- with an indeterminate personality -- be submitted to a court for disposal?

Naturally, a parliamentary enquiry cannot be countenanced in a case such as this, given the circumstances noted above. That will be wasting tax payers' money and the time of the legislature.

It is interesting that no facts that can be put to a test have been cited by those seeking a probe. The best 'evidence' so far is the purported record of the travels of Natwar Singh's son to Jordan, where, incidentally, his late wife came from.

Really, how many seconds will a self-respecting court take to dismiss such psychedelic evidence? It may be useful to recall the Bofors case here. Everybody who was anybody, not to forget others, had got into the act. But in the end, even a legal eagle like Ram Jethmalani was reduced to asking ten questions a day through the media.

In the end, Bofors became a national nightmare without end. For 15 years, when mostly the Congress' opponents were in power, it sapped the country's vigour as politicians of different persuasions literally burned themselves out before crying halt. And yet absolutely nothing emerged.

'Not fair to drag Sonia in the issue without any evidence'

So, we have been there. Do we want to get there again?

Thus far, the whole spectacle appears to be a political name calling exercise, essentially. The media is just being caught up in the vortex. In a democracy, political leaders and government functionaries should certainly be above suspicion. When doubts arise, an inquiry ought to be taken for granted. But the doubts themselves should be based on verifiable material.

Parties have their agendas and they will walk the political gangplank, but the country does not have to be an accessory to foolishness.

China, Russia and France are all members of the UN Security Council under whose resolution the Volcker Committee was established. France is also one of the world's oldest democracies. These countries have simply set aside the OFFP inquiry report. Is there a special reason why we should begin to shake with moral frenzy?

Anand K Sahay is a visiting professor at the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi

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Anand K Sahay