The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Natwar probe sleuth briefs Sonia

New Delhi, Dec. 7: Before the Congress announced on Monday evening that Natwar Singh would resign, a top Enforcement Directorate official visited Sonia Gandhi at her residence.

Observers believe it was this meeting that sealed the fate of the defiant former minister-without-portfolio.

The senior officer reached 10 Janpath in his official vehicle between 4.30 and 5 pm on December 5. There was no logbook entry or recorded account of his car entering Sonia’s house, but sources confirmed the meeting.

It took place before the four-member team from the directorate that probes foreign exchange violations left for Iraq and other countries to pursue its investigation of charges made in the UN-commissioned Volcker report on Iraq’s oil-for-food programme in which Natwar has been named.

The directorate has in its possession documents brought by India’s special envoy Virendra Dayal from the Volcker committee, which relate to the oil allotments allegedly made against Natwar’s and the Congress party’s names. Kickbacks were allegedly paid to the then Saddam Hussein regime for the allotments.

The senior officer met Sonia for close to an hour. The sources said he apprised Sonia of the investigation and information about “crucial players” who could be implicated in the oil-for-food scam.

Trouble for Natwar had, however, been brewing for some time. Only the night before the directorate officer’s talks with Sonia, the Congress steering committee met and dropped Natwar. He was a member, but was not called to the meeting, which discussed his exit.

The move to get him to resign as minister-without-portfolio ' Natwar had earlier given up his post as external affairs minister ' acquired a sharper edge after Sonia was briefed about the actors named in the Volcker report.

After hectic activities in the Congress, including a public statement by Kapil Sibal, a Union minister, that Natwar was not taking the hint to quit, the former foreign minister received a late-night order to show up at 10 Janpath.

He turned up, accompanied by his wife, who is Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh’s sister, around 10.30 pm and spent about an hour with Sonia. He left Sonia’s residence without offering a word to the media.

The next day there was another meeting with Sonia and in the evening, Natwar read out a statement, saying he was resigning because the Opposition was using his presence in the cabinet as an excuse to stall Parliament.

The Enforcement Directorate official’s visit to 10 Janpath, however, raises an important question about propriety. Sonia is not a member of the government, though she is the chairperson of the coalition ' the United Progressive Alliance ' that is in power.

Already, the Opposition is demanding her resignation as the head of the National Advisory Council, an official post, because the Congress is named in the Volcker report. The ED official’s visit to her residence may hand it more ammunition.

Beyond that, however, there is the obvious question of what the official told her that settled the case against Natwar, who maintained even while announcing his resignation that he was innocent.

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