Page last updated at 05:43 GMT, Wednesday, 7 December 2005

Analysis: Congress under pressure

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC correspondent, Delhi

Natwar Singh
Natwar Singh has denied the charges but has had to go
Natwar Singh's decision finally to step down as a cabinet minister comes as a great relief to India's governing Congress Party, which has been under pressure to take action against him.

Last month he was removed from his post as India's foreign minister following allegations that he benefited from the Iraq oil-for-food scandal.

But he continued to remain in cabinet as a minister-without-portfolio, a position that became untenable following fresh allegations levelled against him by a fellow Congress party member and Indian ambassador, Aneil Matherani.

Natwar Singh has consistently denied the allegations, which were first raised in a UN report.

Mr Matherani's allegations in a magazine interview however, in which he suggested that Mr Singh had facilitated the procurement of oil vouchers during a visit to Iraq in 2001, gave the opposition a fresh opportunity to target the government.

In the end, Mr Singh had to go at the very least to insulate the Congress party - and its president Sonia Gandhi - from the charges.

Congress was also named in the UN report. It too has dismissed the charges as false.

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When the UN's Volcker report was made public last month, the exact role the foreign minister played was still unclear.

Since the allegations were already in the public domain there was nothing they could do
Amit Baruah, diplomatic correspondent, The Hindu

But the Indian government wasted little time trying to contain the political fallout from what is undeniably one of the biggest embarrassments it has faced since coming to power.

It was helped in part by an outburst by the foreign minister which further embarrassed the government.

In a television interview, Mr Singh said the allegations were made by an Iraqi regime that had no international credibility and likened it to the failed US hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

His comments would have left red faces in an administration that has publicly come out in support of the recently elected Iraqi government and which has very strong ties with the United States.

Analysts say the government had little choice but to act since the allegations were made in an international report and were directed against a very senior minister who led the country's foreign policy.

Manmohan Singh (left) and Sonia Gandhi
The Congress Party is sensitive to allegations of corruption
"Since the allegations were already in the public domain there was nothing they could do," says Amit Baruah, diplomatic correspondent of The Hindu newspaper.

"The charges relate to a period when he was not even in government. Despite that he had to be removed."

Congress fears

The Congress party is particularly sensitive to allegations of corruption.

In 1989, allegations over a defence deal - the infamous Bofors scandal - helped bring down the government of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Mr Gandhi was later cleared of any wrongdoing but the stigma has never been fully removed.

With his widow, Sonia, now heading the party, it is clear that it needs to distance itself from the latest allegations.

It is not surprising therefore that Natwar Singh's decision to quit was made after a late-night meeting with Mrs Gandhi on Monday.

Mr Singh is very loyal to the Gandhi family and the decision to remove him would have come from the very top.

The controversy has had a fallout in parliament with very little business being conducted over the past few days, as opposition MPs demanded that Mr Singh step down.

But there is little danger that the allegations surrounding the former foreign minister or his removal will bring down the government.

Several key coalition partners and supporters, including the influential Communist parties, have spoken out against the allegations and questioned the credibility of the report.


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