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Dr Singh's blind spots: Pakistan and Maoists

May 25, 2010 14:38 IST

Dr Manmohan Singh with GilaniThe prime minister's remarks on relations with Pakistan and on the Maoist issue do not bode well for our success in dealing with these two challenges to our national security in an effective manner, writes B Raman.

Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh addressed a press conference on May 24 to mark the completion of one year of his second tenure. Hopes that he will be more forthcoming than he usually is on matters of concern to the people such as the internal security situation and India's relations with Pakistan were belied. He was evasive and avoided going into specifics. This has led to considerable criticism.

It would be unfair to say that Dr Singh has not had any achievements to his credit during the six years he has been in office. The economy has been in good shape without being affected seriously by the global meltdown. Greater attention has been paid to the problems of the common man.

India's relations with the US have improved without affecting its relations with Russia. It has maintained its interests in Afghanistan without being deterred by terrorist attacks on the Indian mission in Kabul and without letting itself be forced by the US pressure to reduce its presence in that country to address Pakistani concerns.

Frictions over border and security-related issues have not been allowed to come in the way of the developing economic relations with China. Following the Copenhagen climate summit, the comfort level between India and China has increased. Relations with Sri Lanka have improved and India has played a quiet role in ensuring the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam without losing sight of the interests of the Tamils. Relations with Bangladesh are in a better shape than before with greater attention to India's security concerns by the government in Dhaka.

Despite misunderstanding with the Maoists of Nepal, India has not lost the goodwill of the political class in Nepal. The low-profile relations with Myanmar have served India's security interests. Relations with Bhutan, the Maldives, the ASEAN countries and Japan continue to improve.

While maintaining its interest in the countries to the east, India has been paying more attention to the countries to the west. The Look East policy has been supplemented by a much-needed Look West policy. India has been playing an important role in multilateral institutions and mechanisms -- whether in matters relating to the economy or regional security. India is accepted as a benign regional power though there is continuing scepticism over its capability to play the role of a global power on par with China.

Lack of public enthusiasm over his policies have been confined to his handling of Pakistan's use of terrorism against India and the increase in the activities of the Maoists, who pose a challenge to the political stability and internal security of India.

His desire for better relations with Pakistan in spite of its continuing use of terrorism against India to achieve a change in the status quo in Jammu and Kashmir and to keep India weak came out clearly at the press conference.

No one can question his interest in keeping the dialogue going with Pakistan in the hope of one day persuading the Pakistani leadership to realise the folly of using terrorism to serve its national agenda. What one finds disturbing is his tendency to romanticise India's relations with Pakistan and his ill-conceived assertion that India's emergence as a major power depended on better relations with Pakistan.

His remarks linking India's future as a major power with an improvement in its relations with Pakistan are likely to be misinterpreted in Islamabad as indicating that its use of terrorism against India has started paying dividends. There will be more and not less terrorism as a result of Dr Singh's penchant for softness towards Pakistan.

Ever since he took over as the prime minister in 2004, one has not come across a single statement of his indicating in clear terms what India can do and what it will not do to improve relations with Pakistan.

There has been an unfortunate impression in Pakistan that Dr Singh does not attach the same seriousness to Pakistan's use of terrorism against India as large sections of our public and political class do. As a result of Dr Singh's perceived softness towards Pakistan and his disinclination to use the stick against Pakistan, there is an impression in Pakistan's military and intelligence circles that Dr Singh lacks the will and the desire to be tough with Pakistan and, hence, they can do anything against India and get away with it.

Unless this impression is corrected through a clear enunciation of our policy, we are not going to have any respite from Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. India has suffered two acts of mass casualty terrorism emanating from Pakistan during Dr Singh's tenure -- the July 2006 attack on suburban trains in Mumbai and the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai -- and more are likely so long as our prime minister does not act to remove this impression of Pakistan.

Repeated expressions of goodwill towards Pakistan seem to be more important to him than assurances to his own people that he will not tolerate any more act of mass casualty terrorism against his people from Pakistan.

This is not an argument against talks with Pakistan. This is an argument to hold our feet firmly to the ground while talking to Pakistan and to avoid talks based on illusions. This is an argument to underline that Dr Singh, as prime minister, has an important responsibility to protect the lives and property of his people from acts of terrorism sponsored by Pakistan. The exercise of this responsibility should have greater priority over any goodwill for Pakistan.

His conviction that India's rise as a major power depends on better relations with Pakistan is not totally correct. Better relations with Pakistan will definitely help, but the absence of it will not mean the end of the world for India.

We have reached where we are today despite our bad relations with Pakistan and we can continue to keep moving forward even if there is no significant improvement in the bilateral relations. Talk to Pakistan, but avoid the defeatist impression that talking to Pakistan is the only salvation for India. It is not.

His remarks on the Maoist challenge brought out clearly the bureaucrat-turned-politician in him and not the statesman. The realisation that the Maoist problem is no longer a localised regional problem was missing in his remarks. It has become a political and humanitarian challenge and a security problem with pan-Indian dimensions that has to be dealt with at a pan-Indian level.

A pan-Indian response to this challenge has to come from New Delhi and the prime minister has to play the leadership role in the search for such a response.

Instead of admitting his responsibility and expressing his determination to exercise that responsibility, he sought to pass the buck on to the states by projecting it as still in the stage of a localised, regional problem which has to be handled by the affected states to the best of their ability with the required assistance from the government of India.

His remarks on relations with Pakistan and on the Maoist issue do not bode well for our success in dealing with these two challenges to our national security in an effective manner.

Image: Dr Singh with Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani

B Raman