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Ministry is gone, but not minister

New Delhi, Nov. 7: Kunwar Natwar Singh lost his empire today but retained his crown.

After days of will-he-won’t he speculation, it was announced by the Prime minister’s Office that Natwar would no longer hold the external affairs ministry but would continue as a member of the cabinet without a portfolio.

The arrangement was a signal that Natwar would neither take defeat for an answer nor allow the Prime Minister to reclaim the moral high ground after the oil-for-food scandal erupted.

Natwar and the Congress have been accused in the UN-appointed Volcker committee’s report on the oil-for-food scheme that operated during Saddam Hussein’s reign of paying kickbacks to Iraq. Both have denied the charge, saying they had no oil dealings with the Saddam government.

With Natwar’s departure, external affairs become the responsibility of Manmohan Singh till the two probes instituted by the government to investigate the Volcker allegations against Natwar and the Congress are completed.

M K Narayanan, the national security adviser, will be the de facto foreign minister following the Prime Minister’s decision to keep the portfolio with himself.

Several Indian embassies and high commissions around the globe received oral instructions from South Block as soon as a decision was taken about Natwar Singh’s fate that their point man in place of the external affairs minister would, henceforth, be Narayanan.

The national security adviser would be assisted in liaising between key
Indian envoys and the Prime Minister by Narayanan’s deputy and veteran diplomat, Vijay Nambiar.

Earlier in the day, the government announced a judicial probe by a former chief justice, R.S. Pathak.

Last night, it had entrusted former UN diplomat Virendra Dayal with the task of liaising with the UN and its member-states to procure details about Indian entities and individuals mentioned in the Volcker report.

It is believed that Natwar, who till this morning made it plain he had no intention to quit, was assured that if absolved, he would get his job back.

Sources said Natwar himself might have dug his grave by “excessively politicising” the issue. First, he painted the report as a US-inspired conspiracy to malign those who were sympathetic to Saddam.

Second, he courted the Left and Congress allies like the DMK and the RJD for support on the ideological plank of anti-Americanism.

The last straw that broke the Prime Minister’s and the Congress’s patience was Natwar’s declaration yesterday that India could revise its vote on making Iran fall in line with international norms on nuclear programmes.

“If a resolution is placed at the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), which is more severe than the last one, ... I can as foreign minister of India tell you that my recommendation to the government will be to revise our vote,” he had said.

The government and the Congress read the statement as another sop to the Left and a “needless” provocation to the Prime Minister.

Sources close to Manmohan Singh said: “The Prime Minister was clear from the start that no motives should be attributed to a UN report.”

Congress sources, however, admitted that if the Iran vote was “complex”, forcing Natwar out was equally so because of his supposed damage potential. “His steadfast stand was: why was he singled out when the report mentions the Congress as well'” a source said.

There were “reasons to believe” that if dropped altogether, he might have damned the party in public.

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