Wednesday, Mar 29, 2023

'Controlled Indignation'

'Controlled Indignation'

He was anything but controlled as he held forth on how the present government of Iraq has no credibility anywhere, Saddam's support for Emergency, bemoaned the break-up of the USSR, rubbished the previous government running after Strobe Talbott and h

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Excerpts from an interview of K Natwar Singh to Barkha Dutt for NDTV 24 X 7 on Saturday, November 5, 2005. Transcript courtesy, The Indian Express

Barkha Dutt:  If I were to return to this library exactly one month from now, do you think you would still be the foreign minister of India?

Natwar Singh: I should think so. The prerogative would be of the Prime Minister, but I think I shall be very happy to meet you in the same capacity after one month. And let me also begin by saying that I am speaking not only as the foreign minister but also as the member of the Congress Working Committee.

The only emotion a good diplomat is allowed is controlled indignation. I am very indignant that a party like the Congress, founded in 1885, with leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajaji and Sardar Patel and Maulana Azad, is being maligned, for no rhyme or reason. Did anybody ask the Congress party, did Mr Volcker write to them? I am a small person, the Congress Party is a world famous democratic party, they are not given any chance. Mr Volcker should have had the courtesy, if he thought my name was there, to send me a notice. This evening, or yesterday, he said he didn’t know Natwar Singh was the foreign minister of India. I can only say it’s not the case of ignorance is bliss, it’s just sad.

Barkha Dutt:  Did that statement offend you? Did you find it arrogant?

Natwar Singh: Not arrogant. I felt appalled that he was holding this inquiry... and the reports, of the five reports, the first four are on UN personnel. Secretary General Kofi Annan accepted them. The fifth is miscellaneous where all the names appear. The Congress Party’s name does not appear in the report. Natwar Singh’s name does not appear in the report.

Barkha Dutt:  It appears in the annexures.

Natwar Singh: Annexures. There’s no validity, these annexures. We have heard about the reports. There was a WMD report on Iraq, Collin Powell had to go to the Security Council and indulge in terminological inexactitude, to put it mildly. What’s the validity of this? So (on) the fifth report, the Secretary General has said, ‘‘I take take note of it,’’ period.

Barkha Dutt:  The report alleges that Mr Natwar Singh, as well as the Congress Party, had used the services of a Zurich-based energy company called Masefield AG. Through this company, Natwar Singh and the Congress party bought oil from Saddam Hussein. Through this company, this oil was later re-sold in the international market. According to Volcker, the illegality is the surcharge was paid by Andaleeb Sehgal, a man who is said to be a close friend of your son Jagat Singh. Did Natwar Singh ever purchase oil from Saddam Hussein through Masefield AG?

Natwar Singh: NO, NO. N-E-V-E-R in all capital. Why didn’t Mr Volcker put my name in the report? Or the name of the Congress party.

Barkha Dutt:  He does, in the annexures.

Natwar Singh: But these annexures are manufactured by whom? The present government of Iraq, which has no credibility anywhere. So they have put it there and in a cavalier manner, he says, ‘‘Well, they are there I didn’t even know.’’ What do you mean? You are maligning one of the greatest democratic, secular, political parties in the world, in this manner. So you expect us to take it lying down...

Barkha Dutt:  So oil does not figure in this.

Natwar Singh: This company’s name that you mentioned?

Barkha Dutt:  Masefield AG...

Natwar Singh: I have never heard of it till I read in the newspapers.

Barkha Dutt:  And never bought any oil from Saddam Hussein.

Natwar Singh: I don’t even know how to go and buy oil. And what a barrel looks like.

Barkha Dutt:  Paul Volcker says in New York that his report is based on Iraqi documents. So apparently there must be some Iraqi documents floating around somewhere that says that Natwar Singh and the Congress Party bought oil.

Natwar Singh: Please produce them.

Barkha Dutt:  So you would like Paul Volcker to disclose what he bases his allegation on.

Natwar Singh: Most certainly. I am willing to write to him and tell him that Mr. Volcker, why didn’t you write to me? You wrote to so many people, you didn’t write to the Congress.

Barkha Dutt:  His report said that he sent a notice to Masefield AG and they never wrote back.

Natwar Singh: That’s for them and Volcker. Nothing to do with me. Nothing to do with the Congress Party.

Barkha Dutt:  According to the Volcker report, Andaleeb and his company (Hamdan) deposit the illegal surcharge on behalf of Natwar Singh and the Congress. Jagat Singh, your son, has already said in an interview with NDTV, that Andaleeb is a friend but does not have to be familiar with his business dealings. Would you like to clarify what is the equation between Andaleeb and your family?

Natwar Singh: Nothing. We have no business contacts with him. He is young man who’s a friend of my son. He comes here and he also married somebody distantly related to us.

Barkha Dutt:  BJP says they are second cousins, there’s a very close relationship.

Natwar Singh: I will not even take the name of the party you just mentioned. They are irrelevant in this. And they are nobody to point fingers at us. Keep it out of the subject we are discussing. I have nothing to do with this business. I don’t even know what Hamdan is, where it is. No please.

Barkha Dutt:  You have seen the other question marks: Jagat Singh went to Iraq twice. Why did he go? Why did he go to Jordan? Why was he there at the same time as Sehgal? The latest twist is Aniel Mathrani, a former aide of yours and now the ambassador to Croatia, was also in Jordan.

Natwar Singh: I went to Iraq leading a Congress delegation, I think in 2001. (P) Shiv Shankar, (A R) Antulay and Mr. Mathrani were with me. My son came with me, because he had come with me when I was there in 1985, to open a railway line built by the Indian Railways. There’s no bar against my son accompanying me there. He happened to marry a girl whose father was a Jordanian Muslim. So, he went to spend few days with his father-in-law. Is that a crime?

Barkha Dutt:  Mathrani’s trip to Jordan, it’s said, was within weeks of Sehgal having deposited the money in a Jordan bank.

Natwar Singh: Mathrani can defend himself. He went with me as part of the delegation. He also went again for another delegation, two members, they went to the birthplace of Saddam Hussein on his birthday. Previously Salman Khursheed had gone, other colleagues had gone, because we had very close links with the Baath Party, a secular party.

Barkha Dutt:  But that’s to Iraq. Why to Jordan?

Natwar Singh: How do you go to Iraq without going to Jordan?

Barkha Dutt:  You are saying Jordan was used as a transit route.

Natwar Singh: You had to. Otherwise you have to go through Syria. How do you go to Syria? In case of delegations, which we went on, fortunately the flight was available for the first time in three months. We all went and we came back by car.

Barkha Dutt:  On Aneil Mathrani’s trip to Jordan?

Natwar Singh: Please ask Mr Aneil Mathrani.

Barkha Dutt:  On your son’s two trips to Iraq — is there anything you would like to add to that? The two trips, which the Opposition has really made the centrepiece of the entire allegation.

Natwar Singh: It almost amounts to a certain amount of frivolity. Why can’t my son go to Iraq, twice, or thrice or four times to Iraq? Is there a law against it? He has already explained this to you in the interview. It’s not a crime...he goes there. I agree that Baghdad was not a place for a holiday, but you are interested to see and to find out, what was happening. That’s why I went, and I had good friends in the Baath Party.

Barkha Dutt:  The allegation is that Natwar Singh and the Congress Party supported Saddam politically in return for the money they may have made in this oil deal. Today the BJP says you should not be foreign minister because you were a political lobbyist for Saddam in return for money.

Natwar Singh: Only, someone totally unworthy of being called a decent person can make an allegation like this against the Congress party and Natwar Singh. What do you think we are? We are the inheritors of a great political legacy and we are supposed to be hawking around oil barrels to bribe the president of Iraq? Should it be not ridiculed? This insult to every Indian, that the Congress Party and Natwar Singh, should be indulging in this kind of activity? How do you think I would have faced myself? In the ultimate analysis, I have to answer myself. I have to keep my good name.

Barkha Dutt:  Why do you think that you have been singled out?

Natwar Singh: Because I lead the delegation. I first went to Iraq in 1982 because a non-aligned summit was to be held in Baghdad. Then it couldn’t be held, it was held in Delhi. I was secretary general, Indiraji was the chairperson and so I went first to see what arrangements were to be made. Then I went in ’85, then I went this time. So I visited Iraq and then we have met Iraqi leadership in various parts of the world. We have had very good you realise during the Emergency there were two countries which supported Indira Gandhi. And Iraq was one of them...That she’s my sister, and we support you.

Barkha Dutt:  And you oppose the invasion of Iraq.

Natwar Singh: Of course. Totally. And had the resolution passed... we opposed these sanctions. What..children were starving, old ladies were dying. And you please ask, how many Western companies were involved? Mr Volcker should, from his own country.

Barkha Dutt:  American companies?

Natwar Singh: Yes, they can find them. This report has been dismissed by the Foreign Minister of Russia. It has been dismissed by the former Interior minister of France. It’s been dismissed by the Mayor of Milan. It’s been dismissed by the government of South Africa. And I am dismissing it here on behalf of the Congress Party, and as the Foreign Minister of India. We consider this outrageous.

Barkha Dutt:  And you are saying this on behalf of both the government and the party.

Natwar Singh: Because I am a member of the Congress Party and the Congress Working Committee. I am not some separate entity.

Barkha Dutt:  I am glad you said that. Because there’s been a perception that somewhere certain sections of your party failed to defend you as strongly as they could or should have.

Natwar Singh: I am quite capable of defending myself.

Barkha Dutt:  Has there been a sense of hurt in this whole week thinking that political rivals are out to get you...rivals who would be quite happy to be the Foreign Minister instead of you?

Natwar Singh: I have the highest regard and respect for every member of the Congress Party. Whether they are ministers, Working Committee members, youth Congress workers, I think somebody with my experience and my age, I have greatest regard for single Congress person without exception.

Barkha Dutt:  Do you believe that they have treated you with the regard that you deserve.

Natwar Singh: I am not interested. I look after myself. My leader of the Congress party is Smt Sonia Gandhi, whom I happen to know rather well. With whose family I have had links for 60 years, when I was 13 years old...I have worked with Rajiv Gandhi, I have worked with Indiraji, I was 11 years in service when Panditji was prime minister. So, I can never, never, criticise any leader or colleague of mine in the Congress party. I respect all my colleagues. Even if some of them said anything against me, I will not criticise that.

Barkha Dutt:  You must have heard rumours..

Natwar Singh: I ignore these rumors, there's no basis to it...The prime minister issued a statement and came back. They stand by me. Yesterday, the core group issued a statement...

Barkha Dutt:  Now sending a legal notice to the UN and Paul Volcker, the BJP’s already said this is legally not tenable...

Natwar Singh: Frankly, I was surprised. Because United Nations consists of 192 sovereign states. Secretary General is the servant of these states. He is the executive head of the UN setup. So you can send to him, that we would like some information. But to say...I don’t know whether it was said in writing or verbally, that we have sent the UN a legal notice, it shouldn’t have been said. We are going to the Secretary General to ask him to throw some light on this, because he’s got the Volcker Report with him.

Barkha Dutt:  Is that what the government has decided to do? To actually seek clarifications, we believe, informally from United Nations?

Natwar Singh: As Foreign Minister of India I have spoken to our permanent representative Nirupam Sen half dozen times. I have asked him, please get an appointment with the Secretary General, please go and have an appointment with Mr. Volcker and find out the truth and let us know. If there’s anything wrong that we have done, we would like to correct it. But if we have not done then you should convey our displeasure.

Barkha Dutt:  These kind of reports of an inquiry that may be instituted, you would say what to it. Because you have said in earlier days that you were open to an inquiry.

Natwar Singh: This (is a) matter which the Prime Minister must decide. We will abide by his decision.

Barkha Dutt:  There has been a lot of support for you from the Left parties. From Prakash Karat, from A B Bardhan, CPM, CPI. From other leaders like Chandra Shekhar...What do you make of the Left support to you? Is it some kind of anti-Americanism in common, is it a common ground on Iran? How did your meetings with Mr Karat and Mr Bardhan go?

Natwar Singh: They went extremely well. I know them well for many many years. They are friends of mine. I have, in the days of my youth, I was Left of the Centre always. For example, I genuinely consider that one of the tragedies of the 20th century was the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Even if you didn’t agree with that point of view, what has happened now is, that the alternative point of view has disappeared from the world. Which is a great loss. You only have one point of view. And that’s why I regret this.. and young men who would have joined the Communist parties ...have nowhere to go. So they join fundamentalist parties. These are serious questions, which we in the Congress party have discussed. And this idea, because they know, the Left, knows my views...I am not anti-American, or anti-British, or anti-France, I am pro-Indian. If any country launches a war on another country and calls it a humanitarian intervention, it is unacceptable. And then Kofi Annan says that the war is illegal, and they get after him.

Barkha Dutt:  And his son’s name is also there in the report.

Natwar Singh: ...In the report..

Barkha Dutt:  ...Today there is a suggestion somewhere that Volcker actually targeted all those who opposed the American invasion of Iraq. So do you see a dichotomy here?

Natwar Singh: I think we should give Volcker the benefit of doubt. Why should I cast aspersions on him? He has done what he thinks is right, we may disagree with it.

Barkha Dutt:  Many believe that you and Left parties are one on the whole Iran issue.

Natwar Singh: There again I’ll go back 52 years. but I am not offended at it...I had gone to Iran before we went to the US, to talk to them because we had good relations with them. And I had a very good meeting with the vice president. There are some points, that Iran has voted for the NPT we didn’t vote. So they voted against us. May be at some point in the OIC they might have taken a stand which might have not been acceptable to us, but overall, relationship is good. Apart from anything else, a large number of Shias live in this country. Of the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, 450 million in India sub-continent. So we are deeply interested in their sentiments. Now the report of El-Baradei, he did mention that in some points, the information was not given by Iran. But the Iranians said that the inspectors were there when we opened the seals. I must here also say that the speech made in the Moscow conference by the vice president of Iran was very conciliatory. Unfortunately, His Excellency, The President of Iran, the same day made a speech, which made a lot of people very unhappy. But we are in touch with the Iranians and we want to find a solution.

Barkha Dutt:  If I were to ask you directly, do you believe that at this point that you have the absolute support of the Prime Minister and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

Natwar Singh:  Yes, I do.

Barkha Dutt:  Some people say that people in your own party resent you because of your closeness with the Congress president.

Natwar Singh:  This is not a new story. This goes back years and years. If I take notice of these kind of trivia, I would not be able to do my work.