15 July 2006

When Volcker's Food for Oil report was published last November, U.N. official Shashi Tharoor appeared in Delhi. The Investigation Committee named 129 Indian companies allegedly paying bribes for contracts. In a very serious threat to the Indian Congress-led government, the Report named Foreign Minister K. Natwar Singh and his son Jagat Singh and the Congress party as beneficiaries of "non-contractual" arrangements of oil bonuses. Reportedly, Singh was allocated 1.9 million barrels of oil passed to Swiss-based Masefield AG which is linked to Hamdeen Exports of Indian Andaleeb Sehgal who was accused of passing money back to the Foreign Minister, his son and certain members of the ruling party. They all denied the charges.

The following day on the evening of 10 November, 2005, Tharoor was received for about 1/2 an hour by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

In what CAPACITY was he received? What were the main topics? Was anything specifically suggested or agreed? Were there "minutes" of that meeting?

What we know is that the Secretary General's Spokesman's office was taken off-guard. When asked about it, briefing records show the following exchange:

Question: There are reports from New Delhi, at this point in time, that Mr. Natwar Singh said that Mr. Shashi Tharoor assured him that there is nothing much in the report. And, that Mr. Tharoor is in New Delhi now in order to clarify that.

Deputy Spokesman: I am not Mr. Tharoorís spokesman. So, youíre going to have to talk with Mr. Tharoor directly. I think he is in New Delhi. I think he is there. I actually donít know in what capacity he is there. I donít know what heís talked to the press about.

Question: Who is his spokesman since heís the head of the Department of Public Information?

Deputy Spokesman: Heís his own spokesman.

Question: So, we have to ask him, are you saying?

Deputy Spokesman: What was the question again? To clarify his quote, is that it?

Question: My question is that Mr. Natwar Singh was quoted in the New Delhi press and television that he was assured by Mr. Tharoor that there is nothing in this Volcker report, it is to be disregarded and that it is nothing much. And this is what, as I understand it, what Mr. Tharoor has rushed to New Delhi to clarify his position.

Deputy Spokesman: I think his trip to India had been planned. I can try to find out for you what the exact purpose of his visit is.

Questioned again the following day whether Tharoor was on official U.N. business in India and whether the U.N. was paying for him to be there, the Deputy Spokesman said he was "on leave."

ON LEAVE?! Is the Prime Minister of one of the most important countries in the world given to receiving expatriates on leave? Would every busy Prime Minister with a brewing governmental crisis at hand have half an hour to spare for shooting the breeze? Also, being "on leave" does not relieve an international civil servant from an OATH OF OFFICE "NOT TO SEEK OR ACCEPT INSTRUCTIONS from ANY GOVERNMENT." Whenever any U.N. official -- on leave or duty -- meets a senior government official, the Secretary General should receive an appropriate report. Was that done? Any record?

While still in Delhi, Tharoor told the media that the U.N. was ready to extend co-operation to Indian investigators. ON WHOSE BEHALF was he talking? He also stated -- helpfully to the government -- that Volcker's report was merely a committee of inquiry. "It is not a judicial panel," he said "and it is not in a position to make any judicial determination of guilt." In Indian terms, he went on assuringly, "it is like a fact-finding committee." Quite an authoritative position for someone on leave. The use of similar terms 9 days later by Secretary General Kofi Annan, for his very own reasons, when duly conveyed, must have impressed the Prime Minister.

It seemed that the Indian Government decided to take a page from some U.N. officials in New York. Faced with a potentially growing scandal, one way out was to find an expendable (already burnt) scapegoat and commission a highly regarded personality. India's Benon Sevan was already clear: Foreign Minister Singh who had to resign. A one man Pathak Inquiry Authority was established and a most distinguished former U.N. official Virendra Dayal was nominated as a Special Envoy. The task of the former Chef de Cabinet of Secretary General Javier Perez de Ceullar was to obtain all relevant material "with the full power and authority of the government to execute the responsibilities entrusted to him." He accomplished his task, with distinction, confirming exemplary cooperation from all concerned.

We would like here to state our conviction that Mr. Dayal is a very highly regarded former colleague, above any squabble; he is of impeccable integrity. We would then add it was Mr. Dayal who brought young Tharoor from UNHCR in Geneva to U.N. Headquarters in New York. At the time, when Veeru -- as known to his colleagues -- moved to the Cabinet he recommended his young compatriot to work in his former Office of Special Political Affairs. Smooth drafting of reports, coupled with loyalty to the Queen's English, made him very useful to newly-appointed USG Marrack Goulding, who took him along when moving to Peacekeeping. Dayal distinguished himself in performing his new functions, gaining well-deserved respect of his colleagues. Again, there is NO WAY he would have been influenced in performing his current task in the Indian investigation. But some of those who observed Tharoor's recent self-promotion do not put it beyond him to find a way of exploiting that relationship to his personal advantage.

While the Pathak Authority continues its extended mandate, renewed requests for questionings have been sent out. In a great democracy like India, where no one is above the law and matters will eventually come out in public, there are already demands for a wider net of information. Some opposition leaders like Lal Kishenchand Advani are demanding filing a case against Prime Minister Singh and the Congress Party, or even calling in Mrs. Sonia Ghandi. Two other (unrelated) Singh's, Mohan and Prabunath, have accused the government of cover-up, requesting that the collected material should become the property of the Parliament.

An interesting angle would be what does Tharoor KNOW about the involvement of India and specific Indians in Iraq. After all, he was part of Annan's team to Baghdad in 1998 when the "real deal" was negotiated. Many believe that it could be with his prodding that the Secretary General appointed an Indian diplomat (a very capable one) as a Special Envoy mainly to bypass then Chief Inspector William Butler who -- incidentally -- has become as unpopular in New York as he was in the Iraqi capital. That was followed -- by coincidence or otherwise -- with a visit by an Indian commercial team to seek, with the government of Saddam Hussein, further exploration of one of the major oil fields. We would rather not go into more details.

It is often said that information is power. And when it comes to links of Indians with U.N./Iraq, Tharoor may have a lot of it. But then, so do others!