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Since 1st March, 1999
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Govt starts oil scandal probe
UN veteran to find data for judicial inquiry
Natwar Singh leaves the Prime Minister’s residence after a
meeting on Sunday. (PTI)

New Delhi, Nov. 6: The government tonight named a special envoy to collect material related to the Iraq oil-for-food scandal and looked set to order a judicial probe but the announcement did little to lift the cloud of uncertainty on the fate of external affairs minister Natwar Singh.

Virendra Dayal, a former UN under secretary-general and a former member of the National Human Rights Commission, will liaise with the world body and its member states to gather information on the Indian deals mentioned in the Paul Volcker report.

The UN-instituted inquiry had named Natwar and the Congress Party as beneficiaries of the corruption-ridden Iraq programme.

The government will grant the 70-year-old Dayal, a former chef de cabinet of then UN secretary-general Perez de Cuellar, “full power and authority” to execute his responsibilities, a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office said. His appointment will be for an initial term of three months or until the completion of his task, whichever is earlier.

“The government is contemplating other steps as well which will be announced shortly,” the statement added. The BJP had earlier in the day insisted on a CBI probe. However, a senior government source said an inquiry by “a very distinguished judicial person of the Supreme Court” could be announced tomorrow.

The judicial probe will focus on issues within the country. Dayal is expected to furnish the documents he collects to the judicial panel.

The source, however, remained non-committal on whether Natwar would stay as foreign minister amid suggestions that the party and the government are divided on the subject. Pressure seemed to be mounting on Natwar to quit for the duration of the probe.

Asked if he thought the minister should resign, Kapil Sibal, who took part in the day’s deliberations, said: “It is something the Prime Minister must decide and the government at the highest levels should decide.”

Natwar’s exclusion from this morning’s huddle at the Prime Minister’s residence ' followed by a summons from Manmohan Singh ' had set the grapevine abuzz. Sonia Gandhi and a host of senior leaders had attended the meeting.

But the minister, who insists that he has the backing of Sonia, later said there was no truth in rumours that he might quit or handle a different portfolio. About his meeting with the Prime Minister, he said: “We discussed the Volcker committee report and its unsubstantiated references. We also discussed several issues concerning pressing foreign policy matters.”

Natwar also scrambled to placate senior party colleagues whom he has reportedly accused of plotting to oust him: defence minister Pranab Mukherjee, Sibal, Ambika Soni and Jairam Ramesh. Foreign ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna made a statement on Natwar’s behalf that the minister “has made no such statement and that he holds Mukherjee in highest regard as his senior in every way”.

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