The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Natwar goes, charges follow
- Slur on ex-minister’s private office

New Delhi, Nov. 8: A down-and-out Natwar Singh is not being spared by critics ' this time from within his former ministry.

Barely had he been stripped of his portfolio that allegations of favouritism and an inordinate interest in financial dealings of the ministry are being made.

On his last day in office, he apparently made several changes to the proposed list of postings for foreign service officers.

“This is his parting shot ' playing favourites and hitting out at those who were unhelpful,” alleged a source.

Singh was indignant. “I don’t give any explanations. I don’t care a fig for such tittle-tattle. I was fully empowered to do what I did. Everybody knows I am fair-minded.”

It is not known if the government will accept Singh’s last-minute recommendations. The Foreign Service Board is yet to meet to clear them.

“Where is the question of the minister asking for this or that' Only when the Foreign Service Board meets will the list go to the minister,” countered a senior ministry official.

The minister is not a member of the board, but is consulted on appointments.

Singh’s critics claimed that his private office had been active in transfers and postings earlier also. It intervened in writing, recommending that a particular individual be appointed regional passport officer at Jaipur. Within a couple of months, that officer was caught in a corruption case.

A ministry official, defending Singh, said: “An officer is being tried for corruption. But normally the minister would not involve himself in the appointment of passport officers. If something was given in writing by someone, it can be verified.”

Singh’s critics said verbal orders often came from the minister’s private office with the claim that the “external affairs minister desired” certain things be done.

Officials said nobody knew for sure if the orders really came from the minister.

With the tightening of the visa regime by western countries, an embarrassingly large number of requests apparently came from the minister’s office for a nudge and wink to ensure visas were granted.

Officers who were seen as “unhelpful” were sought to be moved out.

An officer who came in the way of a contract for the ministry’s publications to a particular company was removed from the external publicity division.

It is also being alleged that Singh’s office put pressure to promote a software contract for biometric identification assistance in new passports (required especially by the US) to a company whose costs were high.

However, a senior ministry official said: “Only a presentation was made on biometric passports. We are nowhere near giving out any contracts or issuing biometric passports. So if someone is suggesting a contract was being given out, he is twisting things.”

On October 21, Singh passed an order that all proposals for development aid and financial assistance should pass through his office.

The order said: “I would like to review all ongoing proposals and projects in the pipeline regarding aid, line of credit and all such financial and non-financial assistance to developing countries.”

It added: “Necessary instructions may also be issued to EXIM Bank and other related organisations involved in this process besides MEA (the ministry) for not taking any further action on any of the proposals or projects in the pipeline.”

Till this order was issued, only credit lines above Rs 5 crore were referred to the minister’s office.

“Do you know why I did this' There was hocus-pocus going on. That is why I did it,” an indignant Singh said.

“The former minister felt there were a lot of procedural delays in these projects. He wanted them streaml-ined,” said a senior ministry official.

His critics, however, said the financial limit above which cases were referred to the minister was deliberately lowered.

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