Indian Foreign Policy Slips on Oil-for-Food Slick

NEW DELHI – The "oil-for-food" program approved by the United Nations for Iraq before its invasion by the United States-led "Coalition of the Willing" in 2003 has had an improbable and belated impact thousands of miles away.

Through a convoluted process of inquiry and recrimination in the U.S. and in India, it has resulted in the humiliation and isolation of Natwar Singh, career diplomat and India’s former foreign minister. It has also caused a further rightward shift in India’s foreign and security policy.

Singh was named late last year by a UN-appointed committee as a key figure representing the Indian National Congress Party in its oil-related dealings with the Iraqi government and the ruling Ba’ath Party in 2001.

The Independent Inquiry Committee, headed by Paul Volcker, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, was appointed to look into complaints of abuses and malpractice in the oil-for-food program.

The program was meant to relieve excessive distress caused to the civilian population of Iraq by the sanctions imposed on it at the behest of Western powers led by the U.S. A UN report estimates that at least 500,000 Iraqi children died because of the sanctions. And a much larger number suffered other deprivations and injustices.

Under the program, Iraq was allowed to sell limited quantities of oil in return for shipments of food, medicines, and other essential items. The exchange or barter was made through a complicated system of oil contracts, vouchers, bank accounts, etc.

Natwar Singh resigned nine months ago as India’s foreign minister after his name figured in the final version of the Volcker report, released last October. Leaders and organizations in other countries, including Russia and France, were also named in the report. But it is only in India that serious action was initiated against an individual on the basis of the Volcker report.

Natwar Singh’s resignation was seen by his supporters as a move encouraged by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who had become increasingly uncomfortable with his foreign minister’s growing opposition to the United States’ occupation of Iraq and to the presence of NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Natwar Singh had frequently, although not consistently, voiced his criticism of U.S. policies and reaffirmed the nonaligned roots of India’s foreign policy orientation, in which he is himself deeply grounded.

In recent months, Singh became vocal in his criticism of India’s growing strategic proximity to the U.S., and of pro-Western policies in general.

The belief that the Volcker report was used by Manmohan Singh as a mere pretext to rid himself of the foreign minister has gathered strength after an article earlier this month by William Rees-Mogg, former editor of The London Times. Rees-Mogg claims that former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was dismissed by Prime Minister Tony Blair under U.S. pressure because Straw was critical of the idea of using a military option against Iran.

The journalist said his inquiries in Washington revealed that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had taken strong exception to Straw’s remark that it would be "nuts" to bomb Iran.

Rees-Mogg also said it was possible that Straw was deprived of his portfolio because Blair already had preliminary information that Israel planned its recent Lebanon military operation: "Obviously Mr. Straw’s potential resignation in these circumstances would have been very difficult" for Blair.

Natwar Singh has attributed Straw’s dismissal, the recent sacking of Afghanistan foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, as well as his own removal, to U.S. pressure on different governments.

The Manmohan Singh government did not dismiss Natwar Singh outright. It set up a special inquiry headed by former Chief Justice of India R.S. Pathak to investigate who was responsible for allegedly shady deals under the oil-for-food program

The Pathak Authority based itself on the assumption that the Volcker report is accurate, comprehensive, and complete, and needs no scrutiny or cross-checking of facts. On Aug. 4, Pathak held Natwar Singh and his son Jagat guilty of misusing their positions to get oil contracts allotted to their friends and associates.

The report caused a furor and was condemned by much of the opposition as a "whitewash" job to shield the Congress Party. Pathak accused Natwar Singh of writing several letters to the Iraqi oil minister to secure contracts in favor of his son’s associates.

Natwar Singh sharply attacked the report, Prime Minister Singh, and other Congress leaders. He has been suspended from the party’s membership for alleged breach of discipline.

Pathak is not widely seen as an impartial judge. He headed India’s Supreme Court when it imposed a paltry $470 million settlement on the victims of Union Carbide for the world’s worst-ever industrial accident, the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster, which has caused over 10,000 deaths. The settlement was immensely unpopular among Carbide’s surviving victims, each of whom received a pathetic $1,000 or less as compensation.

"Pathak let one of the greatest corporate criminals in history off the hook," says Colin Gonsalves, a public-interest lawyer with Human Rights Law Network. "He was duly rewarded for this by a collusive Indian government with a seat on the International Court of Justice at The Hague."

On Monday, Natwar Singh made a statement in Parliament’s Upper House, of which he is a member. He accused Volcker of "bias" in naming certain names. The Congress Party and Singh do not figure in the first four versions/installments of Volcker’s report. They were added in the final report, arbitrarily, contends Singh.

Singh has also cited a "communication" from India’s mission to the UN to its foreign ministry. This, he claims, states that the Volcker committee’s "inclination would be to discredit the opponents of U.S. policy," that "no evidence has been cited and no documentation given on most of the allegations made" by Volcker, and that "due process was not observed" because none of the Indian beneficiaries of the oil-for-food contracts was asked "to respond to the allegations."

Over the last few weeks, Singh has joined opposition parties which oppose the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and demand a critical discussion on it in Parliament. He has also attacked the Indian government’s ambivalent or weak positions on foreign policy issues like Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, and Palestine.

Singh still professes total loyalty to Sonia Gandhi, but it is unlikely that he will last long in the Congress.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.