The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Bad day for Iraq biscuits

New Delhi, Nov. 7: After more than a week’s defiance, Natwar Singh had to finally leave South Block today ' that, too, not with a bang.

Eased out as foreign minister because of his alleged involvement in the corruption-ridden oil-for-food programme for Iraq, Singh also missed out on the chance to speak on the war-ravaged country or the traditional ties India has enjoyed with Baghdad.

The ministry of external affairs had organised a reception tomorrow at Hyderabad House so that Singh could officially hand over the first consignment of “fortified biscuits” from India for Iraqi schoolchildren. Because of the media interest on the recent controversy, the reception was being touted as the “event of the day” by the ministry.

But less than an hour after Singh became a “minister without portfolio”, South Block officials called to inform that the reception had been cancelled.

His departure has posed a problem for the government ' it is yet to decide who will represent the country at the Saarc summit scheduled to begin later this week in Dhaka.

The summit starts on Wednesday with a meeting of foreign secretaries of the seven South Asian member states.

The next day, the foreign ministers are scheduled to meet to firm up the Saarc document for approval of the heads of governments of the seven nations at their two-day summit from November 12.

Sources said either a minister of state for foreign affairs or foreign secretary Shyam Saran might represent the country at the meeting of the foreign ministers.

Even if Saran or one of the junior ministers is asked to fill in, chances are neither would get much of a chance to intervene and discuss issues with the participating foreign ministers.

Despite the mounting pressure to resign, Singh had been trying his best to put up a brave public front.

On Saturday, he had dismissed the Volcker panel’s report as “bullshit” and “full of lies” and rejected calls to step down.

“Why should I'” he said on television and claimed that since the controversy erupted, it had not crossed his mind even once to put in his papers.

He said he enjoyed the “full confidence” of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

“I am told that I am doing a good job, so do you expect me to go to the PM and say that since I am doing a good job, I am putting in my papers'” he asked.

This morning, Singh began his day with scheduled meetings, which started with a ceremonial welcome for the visiting Czech President at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Later, he held a one-to-one meeting with him at the Taj Mahal Hotel. He also attended a lunch at Hyderabad House with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

However, by afternoon, even before the formal announcement was made, it was widely known that Singh would not be foreign minister, at least for some months.

The sources, however, maintained that Singh might come back with a bang if he is absolved by Paul Volcker ' the person who has named Singh as one of the “non-contractual beneficiaries” of the multi-billion-dollar UN oil-for-food programme for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Or, the sources added, there was also the possibility that Singh could be brought back after the commissions set up by the government to probe the allegation give him a clean chit.

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