Sometime in late-2003, a well-placed official in the Egyptian Mukhabarat (secret police which would be the equivalent of our Intelligence Bureau) sent a message to me through another common friend: Could I meet him please? My first thought was that some act of indiscretion had been committed by me or my team at the India Centre in downtown Cairo; we had been pushing the envelope and getting away with what other centres would diligently avoid.
Was the meeting meant to convey a friendly warning? I had met this official a couple of times in private gatherings and he had been extremely warm and friendly. He knew more about Amitabh Bachchan than I could ever have claimed to know. I had gifted him with a set of Bachchan blockbusters and he had been generous with helping the centre in many ways.
But why would he want to meet me asap at a place that was clearly neither his house nor office? Bewildered, I went off for the meeting, accompanied by my reliable assistant Mustafa, the longest-serving Egyptian employee at the Indian mission who knew everybody worth knowing in Cairo. With him around, no harm could come to you.
We discovered that the rendezvous was at a smoky back alley café in a shabby and rundown part of Cairo. The Mukhabarat official, who had already settled down with his hookah and Turkish coffee, warmly welcomed us. Hugging and kissing over, he politely but firmly asked Mustafa to go sit at a distance. Mustafa reluctantly complied.
After my hookah had been lit and fresh steaming coffee served, he took out a piece of paper and unfolded it on the tin-top table. It was a list of names in Arabic. Oh boy, here it comes, I told myself, I am on the watch list. But it turned out to be something else altogether.
In halting English, liberally spiked with French and Arabic words, he told me that he had chanced upon this list, doing the rounds at the Mukhabarat, which was purported to be a page from the copy of a document the Americans had seized from the Iraqi Oil Ministry. I didn’t bother to ask him where did the Egyptians get it from because what he told me was thrillingly engrossing.
The list contained the names of individuals and institutions that had benefited financially from the toppled Saddam Hussein regime. He didn’t mention what later came to be known as Saddam’s “Oil for Food Scam” because the specific of the details were unknown to him. What had caught his attention was the mention of ‘Indian National Congress’. Or “Nehru’s party”, as he called it.
I shall refrain from reproducing the rest of the discussion. I returned home and called two friends-cum-colleagues in Delhi. It was late night by then but I could not contain my excitement. Both of them heard me out, possibly half-asleep, and asked me to send a ‘note’. I felt deflated, though I did send a note to them by the next diplomatic bag.
A couple of weeks later, MEMRI put out a detailed report with the full list of non-contractual beneficiaries. The Indian National Congress featured on the list. I e-mailed the report to Delhi and to be sure it would reach the right people, I also faxed the text to their offices. Copies of the MEMRI report were also despatched by the next ‘A Category’ bag.
It hurts to say this, but it needs to be said, the recipients of the MEMRI report cold-shouldered it. When I called up two of them to ask what they thought of it, both asked me to ignore ‘American propaganda against Saddam Hussein’. Wounded, I retreated into a corner and let it be.
This rather long explanatory description of how I chanced upon the list of beneficiaries of Saddam’s scam is occasioned by my reading Natwar Singh’s book ‘One Life Is Not Enough – An Autobiography’. Subsequent events that unfolded in 2005-2006 drew this long-time retainer of the Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty into the scam as one of the beneficiaries while exonerating the Indian National Congress.
Natwar Singh lost his job as Foreign Minister and was sent out in disgrace by the Palace. He remains incandescent with rage. In his book, he asserts his innocence and asks why the Congress was given a clean chit. He also wants the papers supplied by the Volcker Committee to be made public.
Yet, he does not tell us who got the money if he or his son didn’t.
The writer is an NCR-based journalist. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta