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The Mutual Indian Friend
There was a certain irony in the rush of events that tumbled over London last week. As Secretary for Northern Ireland Peter Mandelson finally resigned, it was clear that this great master of spin had failed because he couldn't deliver the facts straight on the Hinduja passport application.
But now, the sequence of events is becoming clear. Faced with a report in The Observer that he helped Srichand Hinduja get British nationality, and in return the Indian tycoon gave a million pounds to the Millennium Dome project, Mandelson instructed his office to say "the matter was dealt with by my private secretary." That was just what PM Tony Blair's spokesman Alistair Campbell repeated to the media on January 22, he also clarified that Mandelson himself didn't become involved in the Hinduja passport affair.
But that contradicted the Friday 19th House of Commons written reply to a question raised by Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker—the man whose drive undid Mandelson. Baker was told that Mandelson had made inquiries into the case but was not provided details. "I felt very concerned by this," Baker told Outlook. So he wrote to Blair on January 22 itself, demanding to know the names of ministers—or those involved—who made the inquiries about the Hinduja application. He also went on to ask: "Why was his application dealt with so speedily in comparison to others; on what date were the Hindujas approached to inquire whether or not they could donate to the Millennium project?"
Meanwhile, sensing the controversy was gaining momentum, secretary in the home office Mike O'Brien told the government that Mandelson had spoken to him directly for two minutes about Hinduja; a fact Mandelson somehow did not remember at first. The next day Campbell told reporters that his January 22 statement was incorrect. He said officials only found out the correct position after offices were "up and running" on Monday. But he still defended Mandelson. "I don't think he or I didn't tell the truth," he said. The double negative still left room for future manoeuvres. Next, Mandelson in TV interviews said he didn't clarify the position earlier because he was never asked to do so, indirectly blaming Blair's spokesman. The press blasted Mandelson on January 24 morning. He was summoned to 10 Downing Street, and emerged early afternoon to announce his resignation.
Blair announced an inquiry into the affair immediately afterwards. But there were immediate misgivings on that too. For one, Blair told the House of Commons the same day that "on the information presently available to me" he believed that "the application for naturalisation of the individual in question was decided in accordance with the proper criteria." The government has also not given the date when the report is to be submitted, with Blair saying that former Treasury solicitor Sir Anthony Hammond, who is conducting the inquiry, "will report his findings to me and we'll publish them." But others thought the inquiry was just a way of blocking debate on the subject.
But the attention has now moved from Mandelson to the application by Hinduja. The average time to process an application is 19 months but Srichand's application is believed to have taken less than five months. "We need the dates and the times, and a list of the people involved," Baker told Outlook. "We need to know what representations were made...so we can put the picture together."
But then, the opposition itself could find itself in the same spot. Even former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown, made an inquiry with the home office on Hinduja's behalf. Former Conservative PM Sir Edward Heath was a referee in the second application that came up after the first had failed. So was Labour minister Jack Cunningham. Evidently, none of the party leaders knew that leaders of other parties were also being involved in what became in effect an all-party effort to grant Srichand Hinduja British nationality.
All this just shows the kind of connections the Hindujas have—but it's also amply clear that neither they nor the Tony Blair government have heard the last word on the controversy.