Sat, Aug 26, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Former Indian foreign minister vents spleen

INFLUENCE PEDDLING A probe found that Natwar Singh and his son Jaga leveraged their positions in 2001 to get contracts for a family friend in the Iraq oil-for-food program

AFP , NEW DELHI

Former Indian foreign minister and suspended senior Congress Party leader Natwar Singh speaks during a press conference at his residence in New Delhi on Aug. 11.

PHOTO: AFP

He was once known as India's most urbane politician -- a literary scholar and an able diplomat.

But former foreign minister Natwar Singh has been spitting fury for three weeks since a government probe found him guilty of influence peddling in connection to the UN oil-for-food scandal in Iraq.

The nation has watched in amazement as he fired broadsides at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former Cabinet colleagues, and laid into the Congress-led government over its increasingly close relationship with the US.

He has branded the premier "a weak PM" who knows "nothing about foreign policy," called Defence Minister Pranob Mukherjee a "midget" and labeled other Cabinet members criminals.

For good measure, the Cambridge-educated politician known for his friendship with British novelist E.M. Forster in his youth has accused the US of engineering his downfall because of his anti-US opinions.

Trouble began for the 75-year-old Singh -- who is not related to the prime minister -- after he was named in a UN inquiry into manipulation of the UN oil-for-food program by Saddam Hussein's government.

Under the scheme, the Iraqi regime awarded lucrative oil contracts in exchange for kickbacks.

Singh was forced to quit as foreign minister last November after the inquiry listed him along with the Congress party as so-called "non-contractual" beneficiaries of the program, which was intended to help Iraq purchase badly needed food and drugs.

The Indian government named its own committee to probe the allegations, which earlier this month cleared Congress of any wrongdoing.

But it said that even though they did not get any personal financial benefits, Singh and his son, Jagat, misused their positions in 2001 to get contracts from Iraq for a family friend.

Since then, the former minister has been busy rubbishing the accusations -- even after being caught lying about letters of introduction to the Iraqi regime that he had called forgeries, admitting they did indeed bear his signature.

"I am in the evening of my life and shall meet the Cosmic Master with my head high. Clean I came into the world and clean I shall depart," he said.

He also has been lashing out at anyone he sees as responsible for his downfall as well as at the government, opposing its landmark nuclear deal with the US, which will give India access to civilian technology.

In fact, about the only person he has not attacked is Congress President Sonia Gandhi, seen as the political power behind the throne and to whose family he has always been faithful.

But to his distress, the Gandhis -- India's most influential political dynasty and normally known for their tolerance toward loyalists -- have cut him loose.

The Gandhis have begun treating him as "the sort of ancient family retainer who had been found watering the whisky and filching the grocery money," wrote Hindustan Times columnist Vir Sanghvi.

The former foreign minister's outbursts have earned him a suspension from his beloved party.

Singh has been working to reinvent himself as a leader of the Jat community in Rajasthan state and create a political base for Jagat, his only surviving child.

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