Sunday, November 13, 2005

Will Natvar Singh Sing?

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: Will Natvar Sing?

Natwar Singh has exhausted his capacity to hurt himself. But he has not exhausted his capacity to hurt the Congress. The story of the ex-foreign minister of India confirms an old view of mine. While there is always the danger of character assassination in public life, the far bigger danger for politicians is character suicide.

Now that Mr Natwar Singh has more time on his hands, if not more peace in his mind, he is probably allotting blame for his misfortunes. Paul Volcker is surely on top of his list. But, in all honesty, he needs to divide the blame between Volcker and hubris. The details in the UN report were half the problem. The other half was television: or, to be more specific, the frequent appearances of Singh and Son on the box. Volcker condemned Natwar Singh in his report. Natwar Singh ended up condemning himself on television.

The minister is an extremely well-read man. He might have paused to check Shakespeare. "He doth protest too much." As for Jagat Singh: his innate aggression might be tolerated in a decadent feudal environment, but it does not travel very far in civilised society. If the not-so-young man thought he could huff and puff his way out of trouble, he has not grown up.

One wonders if either Mr Natwar Singh or the Congress took any advice on how to handle a problem that quickly pole-vaulted into a crisis. Friends comment, or suggest; that is perfectly normal and understandable. The initial reaction seemed based on the view that this was a silly season story, the sort of news that fills a gap when nothing much is happening. Hence the slightly thoughtless initial reactions, both by the Congress and the minister. "The Congress will send a legal notice to the UN." In other words the Congress was sending a legal notice to India, since India is a member. "Who is Paul Volcker? He doesn’t even know that I am the foreign minister of India!" It was silly to doubt Volcker’s credentials, and a phone to any sensible man in America might have prevented such a mistake.

But hubris tends to have an escalating impact on poor judgment. By the time Mr Singh was asserting, vibrantly, that "I, as foreign minister of India" could dictate national policy it was apparent that he was out of sync with the culture of democratic governance. After that his departure was no longer a question of whether but of when.

Mercifully (for the victim), Prime Minister Manmohan Singh brought one stream of the running story to a halt when he decided that Mr Natwar Singh could no longer be a tenable custodian of the nation’s foreign policy. The Prime Minister’s initial defence of his colleague is not to be faulted. He cannot jettison a senior minister in the first onslaught even though he was aware of Volcker’s reputation, as well as the integrity of the committee that had done the damage. But the final compromise, in which Mr Natwar Singh has become a minister without portfolio, achieves nothing. Natwar Singh is no Lal Bahadur Shastri, whose advice was needed even after he resigned his portfolio. Nor did the former resign; he was ordered to walk the plank (in his own interest, since the plank was fitted out with a temporary safety net).

The compromise has fuelled suspicion that Mr Natwar Singh knows something that we do not, at least not yet; and that something could hurt others in the Congress. This may not be true, but the Indian voter is a suspicious sort of chap. The chances of anything remaining secret are remote. By the time the various wringers have done their work, at least half a dozen enquiries would have sifted through the oily affairs of an elitist friends’ circle who thought that the world was their oyster and their dads were little pearls. There is the Volcker report, already with us, documents awaited.

The Enforcement Directorate has begun its interrogations and alerted airports that the directors of Hamdan, Andaleeb Sehgal and Vikas Dhar, should not be permitted to leave the country for the moment. The tax authorities will doubtless want their turn. Mr Virendra Dayal has been put on a parallel track, to report on UN processes and reports. Justice R.S. Pathak, with the powers of a civil court, will enquire into the Volcker conclusions. And then of course is the continual enquiry report being done by the media. Ironically, Mr Natwar Singh and his son might find that, of all these options, Volcker might have been the most gentle.

The media has, so far, the softest job. Volcker has done most of its work; all it needs is a bit of follow-up. This is bad news for the Singhs, since with each layer and each lead their protestations look that much more hollow. It is apparent now that Paul Volcker’s basic information came from documents seized from government records after Saddam Hussein’s defeat. He then cross-checked the names with bank transactions. There were no allegations against those who did not figure in bank records: witness Bheem Singh, a Jammu and Kashmir panther. I can hardly comment on the merits of each individual allegation, but the case against Sehgal looks strong. Sehgal was in the picture only because of his connections with the Singhs, and, as confirmed by a former Congress minister, P. Shiv Shankar, a member of the Congress delegation to Iraq, was in the group only in his capacity as their friend. It would be very unusual if two plus two did not make four. It is safe to assume that Andaleeb Sehgal did not go to Baghdad under the false assumption that it was Paris in summertime.

The life of a government is best measured in events, not months and years. By that yardstick, the Manmohan Singh government has reached its midway mark. The early hiccups, like the shindig over tainted ministers, did not affect its stride; in fact, it was the BJP that was sounding strident. But 2005 has been a year in which the government has aged faster than it expected. The budget was more hype than hope; economic reforms were trapped in the contradictions of the ruling alliance. There were political mistakes, the most unforgivable being the mismanagement of Bihar after Lalu Yadav failed to get a majority in the first Assembly elections of the year. The consequences of that mistake will be evident in the November polls. Now we have a very old-fashioned scandal, as grubby as they come. Since the foreign minister was involved, it was entirely appropriate that it had an international flavour. But the most significant fact of this scandal, as far as the Manmohan Singh establishment is concerned, is that it is a Congress scandal.

The lead singer pulls in the bigger bucks in any performance, but he also pays a higher price when things go wrong. In fact, if the lead cracks up, the show disappears. If a Jharkhand Mukti Morcha slips in the ruling coalition, it barely raises a yawn. If Lalu Yadav stumbles, despite his 25 MPs, it is probably good news for the rest, since his ability to blackmail the coalition is dented. But if the political and ethical credibility of the Congress goes, then the edifice crumbles. The coalition can still brazen it out in arithmetical terms, but it will not be able to function as a government. It will also whittle Dr Manmohan Singh’s personal credibility. Take that away, and there isn’t much left.

During his more intemperate spells, just before he lost his job, Mr Natwar Singh often asserted that he was indistinguishable from the Congress. That is precisely the sort of thing that a Congress Prime Minister or a Congress president might not want to hear. The last thing the Congress wants is to have beloved sons like Jagat Singh, who have dear friends like Andaleeb Sehgal and pathfinders to Baghdad like Aneil Mathrani. A Congressman might have such afflictions, but the party would like to consider itself a little bigger than an individual.

Alas, the paradox. The only time an accused is readily believed is when he spreads the accusation. Mr Natwar Singh’s power lies in ambiguity. As long as there is no clarity, and the whisky trail, or the oil-cash trail, does not lead to specific hands and homes beyond doubt, he and the Congress are safe. But there are too many documents leading to too many established companies; will everyone keep quiet? If Natwar believes that he is being made a scapegoat, will he sing?

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