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PM push to oil-for-food probe

New Delhi, Nov. 5: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has got down to working out the nitty-gritty of ordering a formal probe into the allegations against external affairs minister K. Natwar Singh and the Congress, contained in the UN report on Iraq’s “oil-for-food” programme.

While the minister insisted in a television interview he would not resign ' “why should I'” ' sources close to the Prime Minister suggested the option was open. “That remains to be seen,” a source said, when asked if Natwar would stay.

For the second time since the scandal broke, party president Sonia Gandhi met the Prime Minister today. While she is seen to be against Natwar’s exit, Congress sources said she would respect Singh’s views if push came to shove.

An announcement can be expected “soon” on whether the inquiry will be held by a one-member or a multi-member commission, sources said.

Natwar and the Congress have been named by the Volcker report as non-contractual beneficiaries in the oil-for-food scheme in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

“The report is in five volumes, running into hundreds of pages, and nobody had so far read it to the last word or analysed it within the government or outside. That exercise is more or less done and the PM has been advised on the dimensions of the issue. Based on the inputs and his own understanding, a mechanism will be evolved to order a probe,” a source said.

Singh also spoke to finance minister P. Chidambaram and science and technology minister Kapil Sibal, both well-known lawyers, to discuss the scope of the probe. When contacted, Sibal refused to reveal details of the conversation, saying: “There is a law ministry and its inputs will be decisive.”

Official sources, however, said law minister H.R. Bhardwaj is perceived as being somewhat “out of step” with the trends and complexities of modern jurisprudence and, hence, the views of Chidambaram and Sibal would “vastly count”.

“The Prime Minister wants a totally transparent inquiry as the people of the country will have to be convinced,” his media adviser Sanjaya Baru said, when asked about the announcement by the Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday that the government was determined to get to the root of the matter.

Singh is said to be unhappy about the prospective visit of an NDA delegation to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to seek his intervention to get Natwar sacked. The NDA has sought time from Kalam on Monday. The Prime Minister is annoyed with the Opposition for taking its political battles with the government to Rashtrapati Bhavan, as in the Jharkhand crisis.

Natwar, who claimed he has the “complete confidence” of Singh and Sonia, said: “The BJP can’t decide who the foreign minister of India will be.”

The minister, who has the backing of the Left parties, received support from another UPA ally. Shipping minister T.R. Baalu of the DMK said in Chennai there was no need for him to quit. “If a person commits a wrong, it has to be verified and clarified. Till such time, a person cannot be asked to resign,” he said.

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