| IN HAPPIER TIMES: Natwar and Mathrani.
New Delhi, Dec. 2: Within days of flattening the Opposition attack, the government was back to fighting the Volcker fire in Parliament today.
The man responsible was Anil Mathrani ' not a BJP insider but a former Natwar Singh prot'g' who dragged his mentor and, along with him, his leader Sonia Gandhi into the Volcker morass.
Mathrani, inducted into the Congress’s foreign affairs cell by Natwar when the party was out of power and named ambassador to Croatia when it came to power, said in an interview that the former external affairs minister was involved in the Iraqi oil-for-food scam. Natwar and the Congress have been named non-contractual beneficiaries of the scam by the UN-appointed Volcker committee.
“The fact of the matter is that both allottees...in my view are exactly the same...One has been to Natwar and the other one to the Congress party. One, for Natwar’s personal services. Don’t forget he has been the one espousing Iraq’s cause,” Mathrani was quoted as saying. He later said his comments were “distorted”.
Natwar’s reaction was terse: “My conscience is clear. I am ready to face any inquiry, which is time-bound, so that my name is cleared at the earliest.”
But Mathrani’s statements were seized by Opposition leader L.K. Advani who described them as an “establishment” of the Volcker allegations. Both Houses of Parliament were repeatedly adjourned as the BJP-led Opposition demanded the resignations of Natwar as minister and Sonia as chairperson of the ruling alliance.
“Are these hollow allegations' How can Natwar Singh continue as a minister' At the same time, we don’t want him to be made a scapegoat,” Advani said as his MPs shouted in Hindi: “Sonia Gandhi is corrupt, Sonia Gandhi resign”.
The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh was quick to respond, making a statement in both Houses in which he stressed that his government believed in “maintaining high standards of probity and transparency in public life” and that “no one who is guilty will go unpunished”.
Iterating that the government was determined to “establish the truth or otherwise of these (Volcker) references”, Singh said the enforcement directorate had assured the government their investigations were “proceeding on the right track” and they would be “able to establish the facts expeditiously”.
Late in the evening, Mathrani said his “off-the-record” comments were “totally distorted”. “It was an off-the-record conversation and it is completely unethical to clandestinely record and publish it,” he said.
But for the government, the damage had been done. It had started Parliament winter session this week on a sound footing, successfully beating back the BJP attack on the Volcker report. Now, it will have to brace for more attacks from a rejuvenated Opposition.