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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 November 2005, 12:40 GMT
Letter from Delhi: The Natwar affair

Nick Bryant
BBC News, Delhi

The BBC's South Asia correspondent looks back at the removal of India's foreign minister and the wider significance of the Iraq oil-for-food scandal.

Natwar Singh

Natwar Singh possesses arguably the grumpiest face in Indian politics.

During his time in office, I have seen him smile just once.

It came when he appeared in a press conference alongside Condoleezza Rice, where, in a faint stab at humour, he suggested that he would take great delight in teaching the US secretary of state the rules of cricket.

Rice guffawed. The outer edges of Singh's mouth showed a slight and momentary upturn.

Over this past weekend, Mr Grumpy became Mr Angry, as he launched an excoriating attack on Paul Volcker, the main author of his misery. And as the political pressure increased on him to resign, Singh broadened his range of targets.

They included the transitional government of Iraq, which he claimed "has no credibility anywhere in the world" - and, by inference, its American sponsors.

When the 74 year old diplomat suggested that India should soften its line against Iran over Tehran's nuclear ambitions, it was widely interpreted as another attempt to win support on the left by sticking it to Washington.

Mr Singh had clearly decided that attack was the best form of defence - and that he should turn his guns not only on UN headquarters in New York but the Bush White House in Washington.

Conflicting ideologies

So what of the scandal's wider significance? Unquestionably, it has revealed much about how the old India continues to vie with the new India.

On the 'Old India' side of the ledger, we can list the country's longstanding prickliness to outside criticism and foreign scrutiny.

Condoleezza Rice with Natwar Singh
Singh has long been treated with suspicion by the US
After all, the government's first response was to mount an investigation, where the primary focus seemed to be the veracity and methodology of the UN report rather than assessing Mr Singh's claim of innocence.

In mounting his defence, Natwar Singh had also relied on old-fashioned Indian deference.

A veteran diplomat with a stellar regal bloodline - he comes from a one-time royal family in the western state of Rajasthan, and dresses in a famously dandy manner - Mr Singh appeared to believe that people would trust his version of events rather than those of a retired American banker.

He was confident that Indians would believe a consummate insider rather than a muck-raking outsider.

In the 'New India' column, we can insert the ever-growing importance of Delhi's new strategic relationship with Washington. One of the main reasons why Mr Singh's position became so perilous was because of this trenchant criticism of many aspects of the Bush administration's post 9/11 foreign policy.

Natwar Singh himself tried to characterise the Volcker Report as part of an American plot to exact revenge for his long-standing opposition to the Iraq war.

Again, the move was calculated to boost support on the left.

US influence

But his protestations were deeply unhelpful to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has worked harder at nurturing closer ties between Delhi and Washington than any of his predecessors.

Sonia Gandhi
Natwar Singh has claimed to have the support of Sonia Gandhi
As the right-wing Pioneer newspaper headlined its coverage: "With Minister Out, Man gets free hand to back US."

It is worth noting that Mr Singh was stripped of his responsibilities on the day that US Treasury Secretary John Snow commenced a five-day visit aimed at boosting trade and investment between the two countries; and on the afternoon that the roar of US F-16 fighters drowned out the anti-Bush slogans of demonstrators gathered in Bengal protesting joint air exercises between India and America.

More important, this controversy comes as the US Congress mulls the Bush administration's landmark deal to assist India's civilian nuclear programme. Republicans in Congress have mounted their own probe into the oil for food scandal.

Congressional approval for the nuclear deal would have been made much more difficult if Mr Singh had remained in his job.

Natwar Singh always claimed to have the confidence and support of Sonia Gandhi, India's most powerful woman.

One of his biggest problems was that he has long been treated with suspicion by Condoleezza Rice and the administration she represents.

Nobody is suggesting that Washington lobbied for Mr Singh's removal, or even hinted at it. But it did not have to. Diplomacy works on a much subtler and, at times, unspoken level.

Natwar Singh may have made the US secretary of state laugh. But he never won her true affection.

And that left him weakened as he struggled to save his job.


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