Sunday, December 04, 2005

Sounds of Silence

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline By MJ Akbar: Sounds of Silence

If you want to understand the Big Story, look for the small detail. When the action is being broadcast in the merciless way that television adopts, get out of the din and check the silence.

The sound of the breaking story can be very loud; in the case of the Iraqi oil scam that has splattered the life and career of former foreign minister Natwar Singh and could spill over into Congress fortunes, the noise has been powerful enough to shatter the glasshouse in which Delhi VIPs live. But the sound of silence can be louder.

There was no home more silent than that of Mr Natwar Singh on Friday 2 December, the day Aaj Tak, building on the interview that India�s ambassador to Croatia, Aniel Matherani, gave to Saurabh Shukla of India Today, exposed how precisely the lucrative deal had been made by the minister�s son Jagat and his "cousin" Andaleeb Sehgal with the Saddam Hussein regime. Media, planted outside the walls of the ruling class bungalow, reported that all phones, including mobiles inside the Natwar establishment had been switched off, but of course they were referring only to those numbers that they knew of. Cabinet ministers have the use of secure telephone systems limited to select levels of power, and surely there was a mobile number or two that was unknown to media.

There were no calls made on Natwar Singh by friends or ministerial colleagues in his moment of anguish, possibly to save embarrassment to both host and guest, or maybe because there was nothing much to say after Matherani�s revelations. Matherani was a member of the delegation led by Natwar Singh to Baghdad during which the deal was apparently made, and his recollection of detail was devastating. Late in the evening, Mr Natwar Singh came out to read a simple, and very short, statement in which he denied all allegations, and reiterated that his conscience was clear but did not explain the reasons for such clarity. He added that his lawyers were looking into the matter. He did not specify whether he was planning to sue India Today, Aaj Tak, and about a thousand other channels and newspapers carrying the full story. He could also have been planning to sue Aniel Matherani, but I rather doubt that. I mention this because someone in the Congress once threatened to sue the United Nations, and that did not quite happen.

The silence was particularly deafening because it was in sharp contrast to the megawatt protests of outrage that followed the revelations of the Volcker report some weeks ago. Mr Singh then sought out anyone and everyone in order to pour scorn, vitriol, anger, vehemence on Paul Volcker and anyone who thought the latter had a point. Such was the media high that son Jagat was trundled out to supplement father Natwar. Young Jagat was so stiff that he did not even sit down, and he made the memorable statement that young Andy was not a particularly good friend, just one of many acquaintances. I don�t think he wants to be reminded of that now: live by the media, die by the media. On Friday both father and son seemed to have taken a vow of silence, leading to gossip that someone had given a few orders. Silence is not the preferred weapon of the Singhs.

In the evening the agencies issued a statement from our ambassador in Croatia, denying he had made any accusations against his former boss in the government and still his senior in the Congress Party, the leader of his famous delegation to Baghdad in 2001, Natwar Singh.

Aniel Matherani is a nice sort of chap, with lots of hair on his head and plenty of smiles on his face, but you wouldn�t want to put him at the head of any research project. His great asset has been loyalty to the Congress. He has been a functionary in the Congress office through thick and thin � and the years of thin have outnumbered the years of thick. I don�t know if he always spelt his first name the way he does now; most Anils prefer to stick to four letters. I suspect that some astrologer advised the alteration to change his luck. If that is true, find out the astrologer�s name, because the Congress victory 18 months ago certainly changed his fortunes. Foreign secretary Shyam Saran said, on the infamous Friday, that Mr Matherani had already been recalled from his post in Zagreb. One could ask why, and why he has not returned as yet, and the answers would be most interesting; but that would not be the most important question. A far better question would be to ask why he was sent as ambassador in the first place. Was he the leading expert on the intricacies of Balkan politics? It was a grace-and-favour job: Natwar Singh had gracefully rewarded favours done.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has told Parliament that the Enforcement Directorate will not hesitate to look wherever necessary in its search for guilt. Here is a suggestion. Technology enables telephone companies to keep a record of all phone calls made. They should get a list of all calls made to Aniel Matherani on Friday, both at his office numbers and to his personal mobile phones.

Praise be to technology. If India Today had not taped its interview, and then broadcast it on television, it would not have had the impact it did. Print is cold beside the warmth of a live voice, and that is what viewers heard all through the day: a member of the original Baghdad Four narrating precisely how the oil-vouchers deal was done.

Here is the Big Denial: "I gave no interview to India Today."

Hullo? We could always check out whether the voice of Matherani we heard on television was his real voice or not. A simple check should establish that.

The second sentence provides clarification: it was off-the-record. There was a bit of huffing about "complete breach of privacy." Well, it was a long breach, because the interview was pretty comprehensive, and while our ambassador to Croatia might not win the next Nobel Prize for Physics, he was surely aware that he was passing on information of volatile importance at a very crucial moment. More to the point is whether what he said, and he definitely did say it, is true or not.

The denial adds that the interview was "distorted" and "misrepresented" and "out-of-context". Where? The Matherani denial never explained what had been distorted or misrepresented. As heard on television and published in print, the interview is comprehensive; the questions and answers flow into each other. The last sentence of the denial is meant to be conclusive: "I also completely and unequivocally deny that I said oil vouchers were allotted to Shri Natwar Singh during the delegation�s visit to Iraq as reported in the story".

This is as brazen as it can get. Matherani provided exquisite and unchallenged detail of how Natwar Singh virtually smuggled his son into the Congress delegation; how Andy Sehgal "accidentally" met them in Amman; how Natwar Singh arranged for them to stay at the Baath Party hotel, and took both of them to meetings to give the impression that the delegation consisted of six members rather than four, and implied that the delegation had a political component and an "economic" component (read oil vouchers for latter); that the arrangements had been made earlier and all that was required was to give implicit legitimacy to the Singh-Sehgal partnership, which was done; how they stayed back in Amman on the return journey in order to complete the deal in Jordan. I could repeat all this verbatim, but a column has space limitations. I might however quote the last sentence of the interview: "That Natwar and the Congress never knew is hogwash."

This is the indictment of an insider who wants to remain an insider, as the "denial" indicates. The individual and the party knew, and deliberately attempted a cover-up, according to India�s ambassador to Croatia, a position that he still formally holds. All his statements so far are statements of a high, and highly-paid, official of the government of India, appointed by this government.

There is one sound that Natwar Singh, his son Jagat, and their acquaintance-cum-friend-cum-cousin-cum-partner (these are only the avatars one is aware of, there could be more) Andy Sehgal must be praying for: the sound of silence. Their presumption must be that public memory is short and media memory a total dwarf; that time will somehow make this story go away. The establishment also must have a vested interest in a slow fadeout, for who knows what will emerge in the next interview: the stress on middlemen fearing that they will be made scapegoats must be enormous.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has a simple responsibility, and one addresses this to him because of the belief that he is an honourable man. He must prove, and quickly, that India is ruled by the law, and Delhi is different from Saddam Hussein�s Baghdad.

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