M A I N   N E W S

Natwar divested of portfolio, but in govt
PM takes charge of foreign ministry
T.R. Ramachandran
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, November 7
After giving K. Natwar Singh a long rope and finding it untenable to retain him as the External Affairs minister, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stripped him of the portfolio to avoid agonising embarrassment at home and internationally but retained him in his Cabinet as Minister without Portfolio.

Clearly, this was the only formula out of the impasse at this juncture with Mr Natwar Singh unbudging with regard to putting in his papers even when the Congress-led UPA government had announced two independent probes within a span of 14 hours since late last night and the Opposition NDA with the BJP in the vanguard urging President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to intervene in seeing the back of the Gandhi family loyalist from the government.

That, however has not happened and the Opposition has reaffirmed its resolve to bash on regardless as it told Mr Kalam that Mr Natwar Singh’s continuance as the External Affairs Minister will considerably hamper India’s strategic and diplomatic interests.

The Prime Minister’s media adviser Sanjaya Baru in a statement noted that Mr Natwar Singh met the Prime Minister this evening and requested that he be relieved of the External Affairs portfolio. Dr Baru said the Prime Minister accepted his request and has written to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam that Mr Natwar Singh will be Minister without Portfolio in the Union Council of Ministers.

There has been an outcry from certain sections in the Congress that at least with the probes being announced, Mr Natwar Singh should resign gracefully and bide his time till the inquiries announced by the government absolves him of any wrong doing. The Minister held steadfast that he is not going to quit as the Foreign Minister as he enjoyed the confidence of the Prime Minister and UPA Chairperson and Congress President Sonia Gandhi.

The way out and the sop came after Mr Natwar Singh met Mrs Gandhi and the Prime Minister when it was conveyed to him that propriety demands that he be divested of the External Affairs portfolio.

Union Finance minister P Chidambaram was present when Dr Singh had the meeting with Mr Natwar Singh.

There are several major events round the corner including the Saarc summit on November 12 and 13 and the country cannot afford to affect its credibility when a cloud is hanging over his head.

The three-member core group of ministers, including Mr Chidambaram and Union Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee who had informally gone through with the Volcker Committee report with a toothcomb are believed to have suggested that the air can only be cleared after a thorough inquiry and getting to the root of the matter as desired by the Prime Minister himself.

Sources said Mr Natwar Singh had been assured that if the two inquiries into the Volcker Commission report absolves him, then he can return to his being the political boss of the high profile External Affairs Ministry.

Even as the Prime Minister kept additional charge of the External Affairs portfolio for the present, Mr Natwar Singh joins a select band of leaders who have had to be accommodated as Minister without Portfolio under different circumstances.

The Opposition attack against the government has been growing shriller by the day. The BJP has demanded that a CBI inquiry be launched against Mr Natwar Singh as some of the transaction of foreign monies are violative of certain Foreign Exchange and Management Acts.

In any case the Enforcement Directorate has already begun questioning Hamdan Exports, one of the companies allegedly involved in the kickbacks connected with the UN’s Oil for Food programme in Iraq. Hamdan Exports director Andleep Sehgal is a friend of Natwar Singh’s son Jagat who has also dismissed the Volcker Committee report as completely unfounded.

He tried his best to retain his favoured portfolio but in vain. The measure of retaining Mr Natwar Singh as Minister without Portfolio is being seen as half-hearted in the higher echelons of the UPA government but they are hoping it will blunt the Opposition onslaught to some extent.

That is unlikely as another stormy winter session of Parliament which begins on November 23 is on the cards.

The Opposition had planned to boycott Mr Natwar Singh in Parliament where he had promised to make a suo moto statement on the Volcker Commission report. Now at least he will not have to face that ignominy.

Even though he has consistently maintained that he has not been involved in any wrong doing or illegal act, the leadership has had no option but to keep him on the sidelines for some time.

Mr Natwar Singh’s suden turnaround on the country’s Iraq policy has also taken the mandarins in South Block housing the External Affairs ministry by surprise.

Meanwhile, the NDA has in a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged him to make available all the documents in the Volcker Committee report.



Natwar’s Iraq function postponed
Rajeev Sharma
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, November 7
The Executive order removing Mr Natwar Singh from the Foreign Ministry portfolio was passed in the evening. Till that time, Mr Natwar Singh had discharged his responsibilities as External Affairs Minister. He attended his South Block office in the morning and then called on the visiting Czech President, Dr Vaclav Klaus, in Hotel Taj Mahal where he held bilateral talks with the President.

Later in the afternoon, Mr Natwar Singh had a telephonic conversation with Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing. During the conversation, the two Ministers reviewed bilateral relations, and also discussed the forthcoming IAEA Board of Governors meeting on the Iran nuclear issue in Vienna on November 24. They agreed to remain in close touch and to work for a consensus on the matter. They have also been in touch with the Russian Foreign Minister and have a broad understanding that the matter should remain out of the Security Council and a consensus should be worked out in consultation with the EU-3 and Iran.

Ironically for Mr Natwar Singh, Iraq, which has proven to be his Waterloo, eluded Mr Natwar Singh. His office had already issued invitations for a reception at Hyderabad House tomorrow where Mr Natwar Singh was scheduled to hand over a consignment of fortified biscuits as gift for the school feeding programme in Iraq. In the wake of this evening’s developments, the Foreign Office “postponed” the reception.

The government has announced a two-pronged probe into the Vocker report findings: one, the just announced Judicial Inquiry Commission headed by former Chief Justice of India R S Pathak and another by Special Envoy Virendra Dayal, a former UN Under-Secretary-General who will collect material on the charges pertaining to India in the Volcker report.

Dr Baru said the Terms of Reference of the Pathak Commission will be announced shortly. It is understood that Justice Pathak may be asked to submit his report in three or six months. Mr Dayal has been given three months’ time to complete his part of the probe which will entail liaison with the United Nations and its members.

Mr Dayal is a former IAS officer who joined the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1965. He managed operations to protect and assist refugees in Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East till 1979 when he was appointed Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs in Secretary -General’s office. He was elevated to the rank of Under-Secretary-General by the then UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar in 1982 and was appointed the Secretary-General’s chef de cabinet. Mr Dayal served in this capacity for 10 years till his retirement in 1992 and had served during the tenures of Mr Perez de Cuellar and Mr Boutros Boutros-Ghali.



ED, IT dept quiz Sehgal
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, November 7
Enforcement Directorate and Income Tax Department sleuths today questioned Andaleeb Sehgal, close friend of former External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh’s son Jagat Singh, in connection with Volcker Committee report on Iraq’s Oil-for-Food programme. The Enforcement Directorate officials questioned Andaleeb Sehgal of Hamdaan Exports, for over four hours, official sources said. The Income Tax and Enforcement Directorate also raided his residential and office premises in connection with the probe.

Sehgal arrived at the Directorate in response to an official notice, accompanies by his wife and lawyer. The authorities had yesterday raided his house and company Hamdaan Exports and the residences of some relatives and recovered several documents.

Sehgal was being questioned since the report had named him and his company as the conduits through which money was routed to the erstwhile Saddam Hussein regime on behalf of the Swiss company, Masefield.

According to the UN’s Independent Inquiry Committee (IIC) headed by the former US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, Sehgal’s firm Hamdaan Exports was a non-contractual beneficiary in the payoffs from the $64 billion Oil-for-Food programme.

Sehgal and his firm Hamdaan Exports, the Volcker report said, paid $ 748,540 (Rs 30 million) into a Jordanian Bank as an ‘illegal surcharge’ for Iraqi oil, with the money eventually said to be reaching Saddam Hussein.

Although it is still not clear, what charges would be slapped against Sehgal, officials indicated that he could be penalised under the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) for bringing in monies illegally into the country from the Iraqi deal.

Officials said FEMA could be invoked if a scrutiny of banking records reveal transactions, which have been done through non-banking channels or the havala route. The existing law has provisions for penalties up to three times the extent of violations being slapped on the offender.

The agencies will scrutinise if remittances of export proceeds were received as per the norms laid down by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) within the six-month limit and if not, whether the RBI had been intimated about the quantum and reasons for delayed remittances.


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