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Mallya was our man, says Ambika Soni; he says no
Onkar Singh in New Delhi
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Keen to ensure that the five priceless personal belongings of Mahatma Gandhi [Images] do not fall into the hands of a foreigner, the government worked on various options, one of which bore fruit as the bid was won through business tycoon Vijay Mallya [Images].

The government was in touch with the memorabilia's owner James Otis and auction house Antiquorum Auctioneers in its efforts to prevent the items from going under the hammer in New York.

However, taking no chances, it decided, at the same time, to field an Indian on its behalf to participate in the bid by proxy in case the negotiations failed and the auction went ahead.

The strategy worked and belongings of Bapu, including his iconic round metal-framed glasses, were retained for India.

"We have been able to procure them through the services of Mallya who was in touch with us," an elated Culture Minister Ambika Soni told media-persons in New Delhi [Images], hours after the items were auctioned for $ 1.8 million. However, Mallya told television channels that absolutely no one from the government was in touch with him.

She said Mallya's representative Tony Bedi, who won the auction, had been in touch with the Indian mission in New York. Soni argued that the Indian government could not take part in the auction as there was a restraining order of the Delhi high court.

Soni, however, refused to give the details of others who were involved in the auction and why the government did not make it public. "Making it public would have raised the price," she said.

The auction took place after a dramatic turn of events with James Otis, the 'owner' of Gandhi's assets, changing his mind on selling the items but the auction house refused to withdraw them from the block.

All efforts were made to prevent the auction of Gandhi's glasses, sandals, a pocket watch, a plate and a bowl, Soni said, adding, "We did not want people to bid for Gandhiji's belongings as they are invaluable."

Soni said Mallya was committed to hand over these items to the Indian government. Talking about the efforts, she said the Indian embassy officials in the US were in touch with US legal experts and the State Department at different levels and "we were working on their opinions and directions."

"Every effort was made to prevent these items from getting into foreign hands," she claimed.

She said it may take about two weeks before the items could be brought in Inida as legalities involving ownership of these items were yet to be sorted out.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] had himself stepped in and asked her to ensure that the items were brought back to India, the minister said.

Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi, who addressed the media today evening, was caught off guard when journalists asked him about a liquor baron procuring Gandhi's items, on behalf of the government of India.

"You should go by the spirit behind the matter," Singhvi said defensively.

Additional reportage: PTI

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