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When Manmohan played Vajpayee

By Sheela Bhatt
July 30, 2009 00:55 IST
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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh didn't budge an inch. He played Atal Bihari Vajpayee of 1999 and batted for peace with Pakistan. His 4,000-plus words intervention in Lok Sabha revealed no new facts of his talks with Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in Sharam-el-Sheikh in Egypt.

Still, it was a political victory for Dr Singh in the House.

At the end of all kind of political high-tension, his party's president Sonia Gandhi and leaders owned up the Sharam-el-Sheikh statement. Of course, the party had no option but to make sure that its prime minister's position in public eye doesn't get weakened amidst the controversy.

But the navigation of the entire opposition within the party against the PM's surprising (to some shocking) diplomatic act was such that opposition parties could not take any advantage of the turmoil within Congress.

During his speech, Dr Singh even drew out the bottom-line of Indo-Pak relationship, taunting the hawks in the field of Indian diplomacy. He said, "Unless you want to go to war with Pakistan there is no way but talk, step by step."

This was his direct answer to critics, who were furious over the paragraph in the joint statement that suggested de-linking of talks with Pakistan from terrorism within India perpetrated from Pakistan soil. 

There was a huge political ruckus over joint statement, which said, 'Both Prime Ministers recognised that dialogue is the only way forward. Action on terrorism should not be linked to the Composite Dialogue process and these should not be bracketed.'

Dr Singh, in his defense of above lines, said: "An interpretation has been sought to be given to the joint statement that we will continue to engage in a composite dialogue whether Pakistan takes action against terrorism or not. This is not correct. The joint statement emphasised that action on terrorism cannot be linked to dialogue."

He said, "Pakistan knows very well that with terrorism being such a mortal and global threat, no civilised country can set terms and conditions for rooting it out. It is an absolute and compelling imperative that cannot be dependent on resumption of the composite dialogue." At this point, Sonia -- sitting on the next bench -- thumped the bench.

The leader, who has been targetted since the last two weeks, could not ask for more. His party maintained a deafening silence from July 16 to 27, but today it rallied around him.

Even as Dr Singh won Sonia's trust, he has not given away much in form of future options. His speech gave enough hints, peppered with realism, about why India would want to talk to Pakistan. If the terror attacks stop in the coming weeks, there would be talks.

Dr Singh's speech didn't show any sign in its language, tone or facts that implied he was under pressure from his critics within or outside the party. Like Vajpayee he said India could not wish away that Pakistan was its neighbour.

He used Vajpayee to blunt main opposition BJP's onslaught.

He said, "Atal Bihari Vajpayee took a decision of political courage to visit Lahore in 1999. Then came Kargil and hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Kandahar. Yet, he invited General Musharraf to Agra and again tried to make peace. The nation witnessed the terrible attack on Parliament in 2001. There followed an extremely difficult phase in our relationship. The armed forces of the two countries stood fully mobilised."

Dr Singh went quite far and applauded Vajpayee as statesman.

He said, "But, to his great credit, Vajpayee was not deterred, as a statesman should not be. In 2004, he went to Islamabad, where a joint statement was issued that set out a vision for a cooperative relationship. I must remind the House that Opposition parties supported these bold steps. I, for one, share Vajpayee's vision, and I have also felt his frustration in dealing with Pakistan."

Dr Singh played well on rhetoric; after playing dove, he satisfied the hawks too.

To pacify his detractors in the party and in the Opposition, he said: "I was told (by Pakistanis) that Mumbai was the work of non-State actors. I said this gave little satisfaction and that it was the duty of their government to ensure that such acts were not perpetrated from their territory. I told them that another attack of this kind will put an intolerable strain on our relationship and that they must take all possible measures to prevent a recurrence."

His speech made it clear that he is neither nervous nor apologetic about his performance in Sharam-el-Sheikh. He also justified the logic behind his Pakistan policy.

He said, "I believe that there is a large constituency for peace in both countries. The majority of people in both countries want honourable settlement of problems between us that have festered far too long and want to set aside the animosities of the past. We know this, but in the past there have been hurdles in a consistent pursuit of this path. As a result, the enemies of peace have flourished. They want to make our alienation permanent, the distance between our two countries an unbridgeable divide. In the interests of our people, and in the interest of peace and prosperity of South Asia, we must not let this happen."

Take it or leave it; these are the victor's words. Dr Singh and his party, obviously, are playing on the fact that they have won a difficult mandate after facing huge controversy over the Indo-US relationship vis-a-vis the nuclear deal.

Opening the debate in Lok Sabha on the joint statement, while BJP's Yashwant Sinha said the prime minister had gone 'into Pakistan camp in Egypt', Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav stated that the joint statement must be 'thrown into the dustbin'.

Janata Dal-United leader Sharad Yadav told Dr Singh, "Your confidence is huge, but your heart should be large, too." He complained that the prime minister was not taking decisions on foreign policy matters, taking opposition leaders in confidence. He advocated consensus on issue of foreign policy.

However, no opposition leader could decipher the geo-political complexity of Pakistan, role of America and its vested interests, and, importantly, national sentiments behind the controversy, in a crisp and direct way. Dr Singh's answers were not satisfying and still, the issue died down, on floor of the House! He got away without explaining the clinching reason that forced him to allow Pakistanis to insert Balochistan in the joint statement and why he could not even officially deny it in the document's next line.

It will be foolish on his critics' part to not take Dr Singh seriously, especially when he showed -- through his speech on Wednesday -- that he wants to move forward if Pakistan responds as well.

Dr Singh, importantly, gave a hint, "Both President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani assured me that the Pakistan government was serious and that effective action would be taken against the perpetrators of the Mumbai carnage."

He patted his own back and indirectly gave reasons behind his moves in Egypt, stating: "This is the first time that Pakistan has ever formally briefed us on the results of the investigation into a terror attack. For the first time they admitted that their nationals belonging to a terror organisation based in Pakistan carried out a ghastly attack in India." 

If the government's contention is that Balochistan's mention is quid pro-quo just because Islamabad has officially acknowledged that the 26/11 conspiracy originated on its soil, then it's a bad deal. That's bacuase India has already paid the price for it in blood on November 26.

The dossier sent by Pakistan is important but it 'hides' two things. According to an assessment by the Ministry of External Affairs, the entire dossier that Dr Singh is counting as his great achievement has two weakness. One, the investigation so far by Pakistan is firewalling Hafeez Saeed, the main accused of Mumbai attack. Second, Pakistan's dossier closes the option of any investigation against the Pakistani establishment in future with regard to the Mumbai attacks.

The MEA has long maintained that India does not have evidence (except naming Col Sadatullah, who is part of the special communications organisation run by Pakistan Army, in the 26/11 chargesheet) but acknowledged that an attack of such scale was not possible without connivance of the State actors.

Despite facing grave allegations, July 29 was an important day for Dr Singh. His party once again rallied around him and thumped the benches during his speech's duration. It was another clear political victory; at least in public eye after playing politics of silence.

Nobody knows what transpired between him and Sonia Gandhi, Ahmed Patel, Pranab Mukherjee in the meeting that took place on July 24 to discuss the joint statement. But surely, the Congress party has played its card cleverly. By keeping mum initially, the Congress cornered the space of opposition over the joint statement.

Media reported more about the absence of support to the joint statement from the Congress than on the reactions of the Opposition. In behind-the-scene political activity, Dr Singh gave his explanation and the Congress fixed the political spin. Today, on floor of the House, both the party and Dr Singh were united and relaxed.

The joint statement that was termed as 'explosive', 'anti-national' and 'sell-out' by critics in India, but the prime minister ignored the intensity of the critics.

So much so that when Sinha spoke for some 40 minutes, Congress -- in a smug move -- fielded Kerala politician PC Chako to respond. He asked Sinha, "What is wrong in having mentioned Baluchistan in the joint statement?" Chako was so ordinary that he mixed up details of Agra talks and events of Kandahar.

The combined force of Opposition and thousands of words of criticism in print, net and television debates failed to pressurise Dr Singh to say something more on issue of Balochistan. All that he said was that "When I spoke to Prime Minister Gilani about terrorism from Pakistan, he mentioned to me that many Pakistanis thought that India meddled in Balochistan. I told him that we have no interest in destabilizing Pakistan nor do we harbour any ill intent towards Pakistan." This hardly convinced the Opposition.

"Unless we talk to Pakistan directly, we will have to rely on a third party, which will have limitations," the PM said, loudly. He surely rejected the Pakistan prime minister's interpretation of certain sentences that de-linked terrorism from talks.

Dr Singh quipped, "I have said time and again and I repeat it right now -- it is impossible for any government in India to work towards full normalisation of relations with Pakistan unless the government of Pakistan fulfils, in letter and spirit, its commitment not to allow its territory to be used in any manner for terrorist activities against India," 

Many experts would argue that there is a hard stance in the above statement but still the issue of Baluchistan remains unresolved. And, if Dr Singh indeed 'changed' his stance in a gap of 90 minutes between his meeting with Gilani and the press conference in Sharam-El-Sheikh as alleged by some Indian journalists and Pakistan media, then the broader issue of Indo-Pakistan relation has returned back to pre-Egypt status. That is a clear setback for peaceniks in India and Pakistan. Already, after the prime minister's speech, Pakistani commentators have alleged that Dr Singh has surrendered under the pressure of opposition parties and the establishment. Even though he won the political battle, Dr Singh has lost ground on the diplomatic turf, they alleged.

Dr Singh and young leaders of his party think that people are ahead of New Delhi's political class in matters of peace with Pakistan. Today, Dr Singh won in public domain but, privately, Congressmen claim that Sonia obliged Dr Singh and saved him from political humiliation. Only in the next move in Indo-Pakistan relationship would one know how much ground Dr Singh has lost.

It seems that the distance between the party and the prime minister was never so precarious since 2004 as it has been in the last 15 days. However, in New Delhi, winner has it all, always.

Chako, while supporting the joint statement, rudely reminded Sinha that his party had lost the people's mandate. Chako didn't say, "So, shut up!" But, it almost echoed so.

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Sheela Bhatt