The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Cong keeps Natwar off quicksand
- Govt to treat Mathrani allegations as ‘evidence not enough’ to sack minister

New Delhi, Dec. 2: The Congress and its government at the Centre have decided that Anil Mathrani’s alleged comments about Natwar Singh will be treated as “part of evidence” to be examined by the Justice Pathak committee but the minister will not be asked to resign.

Sources close to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said what has appeared of the Mathrani interview are “allegations and personal charges” and “not enough” for him to ask a colleague to quit.

A meeting of the Congress parliamentary party, held before the House convened today, drew up the defence. The Prime Minister and party chief Sonia Gandhi were present.

A senior cabinet minister inserted a caveat in the decision to let Natwar, who is a minister without portfolio, continue, saying: “Resignation is a voluntary action, dismissal is an act of authority.”

Another minister added: “The PM’s stand is understandable but the minister should appreciate the compulsions and himself offer to quit.” It suggests “indirect” pressure will be brought to bear on Natwar to “gracefully” exit before the BJP’s attack gets shriller.

The BJP has been clamouring for the resignations of Natwar and Sonia since the UN-appointed Volcker committee named the former foreign minister and the Congress as non-contractual beneficiaries of the Iraqi oil-for-food scam. Mathrani’s alleged claim that Natwar is guilty ' the Croatia envoy later issued a denial ' has rejuvenated the BJP campaign.

Explaining the government’s stand, a cabinet minister said: “From day one, the PM said we are determined to get to the root of the allegations. So far, they are unverified'. Mathrani’s observations constitute one view. The leader of the Opposition said he (Mathrani) has verified the charges. I want to ask, who is Mathrani to verify' A charge can be verified by an investigating agency, a probe or a court.”

The Prime Minister has asked foreign secretary Shyam Saran to seek an explanation from Mathrani who has been “transferred” back to the country.

Government sources said Mathrani will be examined by the Pathak panel probing the Volcker allegations. “It is for him (Mathrani) to state what he said (in the interview) on oath. Then he will be subject to cross-examination,” they said.

The Congress is worried by the Opposition’s determination to get at Sonia. Some felt the Prime Minister could have made a statement a little later. At the meeting, it was decided that Pranab Mukherjee and P. Chidambaram would intervene today, but Singh insisted on speaking to blunt the BJP’s aggression. Next week, the Prime Minister will be in Russia.

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