Manmohan Singh wrestling with conscience and Opposition
Israeli statesman Abba Eban (1915-2002) turned some witty phrases about his contemporaries. One of his quotes was on John Foster Dulles, the US Secretary of State (1953-59): “John Foster Dulles often wrestled with his conscience and always won”. Eban might have been speaking on Dr Manmohan Singh as well. Our ‘honest’ Prime Minister evidently had too many occasions to wrestle with his conscience. And he has not handed out easy victories. He presides over a Government perceived as the most corrupt in Indian history. He himself admitted it to journalists in May, 2011 when the UPA II Government completed two years in office. The approaching fourth anniversary of the UPA II would be perhaps murkier.
The Opposition is up in arms for the resignation of Law Minister and Railway Minister. In the Railgate scandal the accused people close relatives of the Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal. A source in the CBI says that it has incontrovertible evidence linking the Railway Minister himself. But still the PMO has decided to brazen it out. He might yield to his conscience, when the Opposition pressure becomes intolerable.
But that was evident when the first scandal rocked the UPA I on October 29, 2005. The name of Natwar Singh, then External Affairs Minister was named as ‘non-contractual beneficiaries’ in the Paul Volcker Committee Report on the irregularities in UN Oil for Food Programme in Iraq.
The Volcker Committee was appointed by then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in April, 2004. The report said, under the programme the Saddam Hussein Government of Iraq sold $64.2 billion of oil to 248 companies. In turn, 3614 companies sold $34.5 billion of humanitarian goods to Iraq. The report illustrated how Iraq manipulated the programmes to give away contracts on basis of political preferences and derive kickbacks from companies that obtained oil and humanitarian goods contracts.
Today the names of Pawan Bansal’s nephew Vijay Singla and Ajay Garg have become the talk of the day. Back then, the names of Natwar Singh’s son Jagat Singh, his businessmen friends Andaleeb Sehgal, Aditya Khanna and Arvind Khanna surfaced. The name of Anil Mathrani, an AICC activist, rewarded with the ambassadorship of Croatia also came up.
Even then it was not easy decision for Dr Manmohan Singh to ask Natwar Singh to resign. Natwar Singh initially received his hand of trust. The Times of India (October 31, 2005) reported ‘Manmohan Stands by Natwar’. Yet there were intense speculation on whether Natwar Singh would resign by himself or not. On November 5, Natwar Singh spoke to media. He said he had met both the Prime Minister and the UPA Chairperson. He enjoyed the support of both and hence resignation was out of question.
The Government set up Justice RS Pathak Inquiry Authority which lacked teeth. It was an executive inquiry rather than rigorous probe under Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952. It was apparently an alibi to let Natwar Singh to remain in the South Block. However, by November 7, the Prime Minister was obliged to strip Natwar Singh of his Foreign portfolio. He remained a Cabinet Minister without a portfolio. Parliament was reconvened on November 23, 2005 for the Winter Session and the Opposition created a logjam for dropping Natwar Singh from the Cabinet. Even Natwar Singh himself realised that. But he insisted he would resign when the Prime Minister returned from Russia on December 7. But Sonia Gandhi had to crack the whip and say Natwar Singh must Fax his resignation to Moscow.
Finally, on December 6, Natwar Singh decided to quit after his meeting with Sonia Gandhi. It thus took 40 days and intense Opposition campaign for the head of Natwar Singh to roll.
Today the ‘honest’ Prime Minister seems to be in a mood to retain Pawan Bansal. He might win by wrestling against his conscience. But can he win against the Opposition pressure and public mood? That remains to be seen.
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Priyadarshi Dutta is an independent researcher based in New Delhi.