Dr Manmohan Singh took the prime minister's chair with some intangible, but very powerful, assets. He had the reputation of being an honest man, an economic reformer, an efficient administrator, and someone who possessed the full confidence of the Congress president. How much of that is still true today?
I note, with sadness, that The Economist has now referred with contempt to our prime minister as 'powerless.' All talk of substantive economic liberalisation has been derailed thanks to the veto given to the Left Front. His reputation for efficiency is hostage to the antics of his ministers, not just the likes of Lalu Prasad Yadav but even to the ham-handed 'secularism' of Arjun Singh which drew the wrath of the judiciary when he dabbled in Aligarh.
As for powerlessness, it is no secret that the prime minister of India had no role to play in the antics of the governors of Goa, Jharkhand, and Bihar, nor did he have a voice in choosing a chief minister in Jammu & Kashmir -- decisions which Sonia Gandhi reserved for herself.
That leaves honesty as the sole shield. How long can the personal integrity of an individual withstand the acid drip, drip, drip of allegations against his closest colleagues? The vexed Natwar Singh-Iraqi oil affair epitomises everything that is going wrong for Dr Manmohan Singh.
The poor man -- and has any other prime minister been referred to so often as 'poor'? -- has been given almost no option worth the name. Does he just keep Natwar Singh in the Cabinet? Does he sign on for that nutty suit that the Congress has threatened against both the United Nations and Paul Volcker?
Frankly, I could scarcely believe my ears when I heard the Congress spokesman speaking of potential legal action against the United Nations. Every nation that is a member of the world body has signed treaties that offer specific and wide-ranging immunity to everyone who works for the United Nations.
No policeman, whether in New Delhi or in New York, has the authority to give a ticket to a car with a United Nations licence plate no matter how poorly it is parked, yet here is a political party threatening to sue the United Nations as a whole? Did they even think before they came out with such a foolish threat, something designed to make India the laughing stock of the world?
The second line of defence is that the United Nations committee probing the United Nations Oil-for-Food Programme was biased because its chairman was an American. The Congress -- and let us be fair, even we journalists -- insists on calling it the 'Volcker Committee.' It is nothing of the sort, let us call it by its proper name, the 'Independent Inquiry Committee into the United Nations Oil-for-Food Programme.'
While Paul Volcker was indeed the chairman, he had to carry along two colleagues on every decision, namely Justice Richard J Goldstone of South Africa and Professor Mark Pieth of Switzerland. Once you go through the report in its entirety you realise just how stupid the charges of an anti-Indian bias sound.
Roughly 2,500 entities have been charged with making a quick buck by dealing with Saddam Hussein, of which approximately 5 per cent happen to be Indian. The other 95 per cent include such icons of the Western world as Daimler-Chrysler, Siemens, and BNP Paribas. God help us, even the Vatican has not been spared! The Reverend Jean-Marie Benjamin, a Roman Catholic priest who served as an assistant in the early 1990s to the Vatican's Secretary of State, appears in the report. (Tainted money is tainted money, even if it is accepted for a humanitarian purpose by a priest.)
Nor have either the United States or its allies been spared. The Australian Wheat Board has been pulled up for trying to cut corners, and mortified federal and state prosecutors in New York have charged at least a dozen American firms with bribery. The reaction in every reaction was one of horror at the names that came out.
But the initial furore has given way to a more thoughtful analysis. Both Russia and France, which were first off the block to condemn the report, now state that they shall conduct independent enquiries before giving any further reaction. Some European firms have already thrown in the towel, and admitted guilt. But, since the charge of racism has been implicitly laid, it is instructive to read what else the committee wrote about India.
As it happens, India was the lead auditor of the Oil-for-Food Programme from 1996 to 1998. The committee specifically notes that in this period the auditing was 'broad,' and that it did not lose focus until after 1999 (when India was not on the team). The report also states that Indian Oil Corporation rejected the Saddam Hussein regime's demand for a surcharge. It adds that the Indian mission joined the United Arab Emirates, Japanese, Swiss, and Canadian colleagues in complaining about illegal payments to the Iraqi dictator's government. It is rather hard to argue after all this that the Independent Inquiry Committee bore a grudge against the 'developing world.'
I must also note that the report lets off Dr Boutros-Ghali, the former United Nations secretary general who was a pet peeve of the United States. Does that mean the committee was anti-American? None of this means that either Natwar Singh or his son made a small fortune by siphoning money through sales of Iraqi oil. It is certainly not enough to say that our external affairs minister is guilty.
But it is equally silly to say that a United Nations report has no validity whatsoever, and that it can be dismissed on the personal say-so of an individual. Surely, it was the prime minister's duty to arrange a discreet private enquiry, just to see if there was indeed a prima facie case. I was happy to note that Natwar Singh himself has said he is ready to face any probe.
Instead, Dr Manmohan Singh has allowed himself to be hijacked by some elements within the Congress. The news of that idiotic threat to sue, and of demands for clarifications from Secretary General Kofi Anan have been flashed around the world.
The members of the Independent Inquiry Committee have repeatedly made it clear that their brief ended when they laid all the facts before the world. Such a demand simply looks like a time wasting tactic to the rest of the world. As for threats to sue, well, not even the most fiery politicians have said anything of the sort!
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's image as a reformer and as an administrator has already taken a battering across the world. Does he really want to make India the butt of planet-wide jeering by taking on the United Nations?