Decades ago, much before he became prime minister, some news reporters interacted with Mr Chandrashekhar. They asked him about his links with a reputed don of the coal mafia. Mr Chandashekhar promptly acknowledged the association. He described the controversial person named as a friend. From there the conversation veered to the financial help given by that gentleman to politicians associated with Mr Chandrashekhar's party. If the reporters thought they would embarrass the leader they were mistaken. Mr Chandrashekhar bluntly told them that the electoral process relied heavily, if not wholly, on black money. That remark was picked up by the media.
Mr Chandrashekhar's candor was refreshing. He was never so hypocritical as to ignore the reality of the process as it existed. As the role of black money in elections expanded, criminal influence over political parties increased. Politicians cutting across party lines sought reform of electoral funding. Various proposals were touted. The idea of state funding of elections was one of them. But the proposal contained dangers that outweighed its advantages.
Mr LK Advani proposed that all donations to political parties should be by cheque. If this were accompanied by stringent auditing of party accounts monitored by the Election Commission, the idea had potential. And if the Election Commission could impose equally stringent regulations regarding posters and public meetings - designating only fixed venues of public meetings for all parties by rotation - practical reform of the electoral process appeared a possibility. But as with all things, the subject disappeared due to the establishment's conveniently short attention span. It got buried in lassitude.
Ironically, subsequent events offered Mr Advani opportunity to highlight the relevance of his proposal. The Jain Hawala case erupted. Donations from money illegally sent from abroad were allegedly paid to leading politicians cutting across party lines. Mr Advani's name figured in the list. The alleged payments were made on the eve of a general election. Clearly the money, if used, was for electoral purposes. Five politicians admitted to media they had received the money. There was other overwhelming evidence to suggest that the case was genuine. But because of the big names involved, the CBI deliberately botched up the prosecution. A senior CBI officer claimed off the record that Mr Advani had distributed the Rs 60 lakhs allegedly received by him among twenty candidates of his party. 'What is wrong with that?' he asked. If nothing wrong, all the more reason to own up!
Indeed, this case vindicated Mr Advani's earlier plea for electoral donations to be made only by cheque. Mr Advani could conceivably have utilized the hawala disclosure for initiating much needed reform in electoral funding. The Supreme Court dismissed the case on account of insufficient corroborative evidence. The media gave the case a quiet burial.
The case was different from ordinary cases of corruption. Other recipients of the hawala money in the same case included insurgents and Kashmir separatists. That was what made the Jain Hawala case one of national security and not one of simple corruption. It exposed how funds generated by corruption could finance terrorism. All this occurred much before 9/11. Now the world is coming to grips with the problem. It could be therefore a serious miscalculation to assume that the Volcker disclosures will end like the Bofors case or the Jain Hawala case.
The post 9/11 world has changed. The Jain Hawala case has been recalled to put the Volcker affair in perspective. Once again the nexus between subversive criminal operatives and politicians is emerging. Once again allegations are spreading to involve leaders of both the government and opposition.
The Volcker Report was prepared and released by the UN. It has global ramifications. It has become a battlefield for big international players. Those who assume that the oil-for-food scandal was created by the Volcker Report are mistaken. Long before the report was made public Mr William Safire, former speech-writer for President Nixon and a New York Times columnist, had vigorously campaigned for a full investigation of Iraq's oil-for-food programme. A monthly journal published from Delhi, Hard News, had reported in March 2004 how a senior Congress leader had met with Iraq's home minister Mr Tariq Aziz and obtained an oil concession. It reported how the Congress leader set up a front company in Singapore from where the money was routed to India.
The Indian involvement in the Volcker Report is incidental. The report has created a crisis for the Indian National Congress only due to its violation of Indian laws implicit in the allegations. Till now two entities have surfaced in the Oil-For-Food scandal, the Congress party and Mr Natwar Singh. The constructive responsibility for the Congress rests with Mrs Sonia Gandhi. If the allegation has basis, Mrs Gandhi would be guilty unless it is proved that the Congress name was misused without her knowledge.
Would Iraq favor Congress and not inform its leader?
For the present Mr Natwar Singh is in focus. He was made to resign, first from his ministry, and then from the cabinet. It is therefore for Mr Natwar Singh to ponder seriously all aspects of this crisis and the options open to him.
For forty days Mr Natwar Singh resisted resignation on the perfectly reasonable ground that he and Congress President Sonia Gandhi were in the same boat. Meanwhile attention was directed at Mr Natwar Singh's son and the son's business partner who also accompanied the Congress delegation to Iraq when the oil vouchers from President Saddam's government were allegedly procured. The situation dramatically worsened for Mr Natwar Singh after the media disclosures by Mr Aneil Mathrani, a joint secretary in the Congress party foreign policy cell, and later ambassador to Croatia. He nailed Mr Natwar Singh, his son Mr Jagat Singh, and his business partner Mr Andaleeb Sehgal. Observers were surprised that Mr Mathrani, a close confidante of Mr Natwar Singh, should without visible provocation have damaged his former boss. The new disclosure made untenable Mr Natwar Singh's continuance in the cabinet. The pressure to quit by both the opposition and the Congress became irresistible.
This might help Mrs Sonia Gandhi.
Mr Natwar Singh's exit could defuse the crisis and divert attention from the Congress. Many observers are puzzled by Mr Mathrani's inexplicable conduct in the light of his close ties with Mr Natwar Singh. They overlook perhaps that Mr Mathrani interacted closely with Mr Rajiv Gandhi, and later Mrs Sonia Gandhi - a decade before he got close to Mr Natwar Singh.
Last week Mr Mathrani further disclosed to the media how he had informed the Congress in November about the presence of Mr Jagat Singh and Mr Andaleeb Sehgal in the Congress delegation to Iraq. According to him the Congress leaders were -surprised and indignant- when they learnt this. This disclosure clarified the doubts created by his earlier statement to India Today that the Iraq delegation had been selected by Mrs Sonia Gandhi.
Mr Natwar Singh's reputation is already damaged. Whether guilty or not, should he not, to clear the air, put pen to paper and write the whole truth about what exactly happened? Not in a leisurely written book, but immediately? And add also a critique of how political funding in the present system is managed? In this era of terrorism there is urgent need of systemic reform. That reform will come when someone speaks out the truth, exposes the system. The world has entered a new millennium. It needs a new paradigm in which transparency becomes a security imperative. Mr Natwar Singh can convert a challenge into opportunity. He could serve society and change politics. The Volcker Report might well serve to consign our present political culture to the dustbin of history.