Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Why is Manmohan Singh Running Away From Talking to Pakistan

+ India gave two reasons for pulling out of the summit at the last moment: The recent turn of events in Nepal and deteriorating security scenario in Bangladesh. On the latter, Indian MEA pundits perceive that the present combine at the helm in Dhaka has been set on a collision course with New Delhi. The establishment claims it has evidence in its possession of Indian insurgent leaders being given safe havens in Bangladesh particularly by ruling party elements with overt radical Islamist leanings. +

Why is Manmohan Singh Running Away From Talking to Pakistan
N M Sampathkumar Iyangar

AHMEDABAD, India, February 9: “Batane layak hai kya ? Dua salam hui thi. Hall chaal pucha gaya. Baat khatam ho gayi.” (What is there to say? We exchanged pleasantries. We inquired about each other. The conversation was over) was what Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had to say three years back. It was in response to queries from newspersons when he had just arrived at Delhi airport from Kathmandu on Jan 06, 2002.

He had had a short and “informal interaction” with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf at the end of the SAARC summit earlier in the day. Should Manmohan Singh have adopted the same stance with regard to any contact with Nepal Monarch Gyanendra during the 2005 summit at Dhaka?

As it happened, the SAARC summit rescheduled for February 6-7 after being postponed once due to Tsunami from Jan 9-11 had to be indefinitely postponed yet again. It became a casualty of the artlessness on the part of New Delhi’s pundits of the foreign affairs officialdom, who have started reasserting themselves after the change of guard last year.

On their advice, Singh did not want to be seen “rubbing shoulders” with the King who had timed his action of sacking the elected government, concentrating all power in the hands of a palace-nominated cabinet to coincide with the summit in February 2005. India was not going to grant any legitimacy to the king’s actions, the pundits decided, figuring that giving him a platform would have amounted to a silent vote of confidence.

Even as snubbing King Gyanendra cannot be valid enough or sensible enough a purpose for sabotaging the summit, it does not appear to be the real purpose of the pundits either. It is an open secret that the King’s coup had acquiescence if not blessings of the ruling Indian establishment, particularly in the armed forces.

The real motive was to sabotage the resumption of substantive talks between India and Pakistan for normalizing ties, a prospect that does not augur very well for the interests of a sizeable section of the establishment. Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and Singh were to meet in the sidelines of the conference on Feb 7 and Manmohan Singh squandered a golden opportunity to take forward the process his predecessor had painstakingly nourished.

India gave two reasons for pulling out of the summit at the last moment: The recent turn of events in Nepal and deteriorating security scenario in Bangladesh. On the latter, Indian MEA pundits perceive that the present combine at the helm in Dhaka has been set on a collision course with New Delhi. The establishment claims it has evidence in its possession of Indian insurgent leaders being given safe havens in Bangladesh particularly by ruling party elements with overt radical Islamist leanings.

The attack on Sheikh Hasina in August 2004 last year and recent killing of former finance minister Shams Kibria are suspected to have been engineered by them employing the ‘expertise’ of these insurgent groups.

These have shocked sections of the establishment who see a pattern of trying to physically eliminate the opposition to the current regime in Dhaka. Even before formal announcement of the cancellation, Indian media proclaimed there was credible intelligence that northeast insurgent groups might target the Indian delegation during the SAARC summit - an indiscretion that was taken strong exception to by Dhaka.

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran asserted: “There is no question of behaving like a big brother. Our main objective is to make certain that the SAARC summit comes up with desired outcomes.” He referred to the “serious situation” prevailing in Bangladesh and said: “It is only in an environment free from political turmoil and violence that a summit would yield desired results.”

There cannot be a more dimwitted argument coming from the capital of a billion people for wrecking an important moot. South Asia has seen more “serious situations” of turmoil and violence than today. If it is Nepal or Bangladesh today, it had been Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India itself yesterday and may be tomorrow too. Viability of SAARC as an organization will depend upon its ability to respond to such crises. Is it a good sign if summits fold at the first sign of political crisis in one of the member states?

Going by the initial statements from Kathmandu, exclusive monarchy is likely to be the order in Nepal for as long as three years. No SAARC summit for three years then? Obviously, New Delhi’s decision on the summit emanated more out of panic and less out of coolheaded strategy. There is no gainsaying the fact that by canceling the meet, India has generated more ill will than it deserves among its uncomfortable neighbors.

It has only confirmed the image of an irresponsible big bully, not just big brotherly behavior, and undoubtedly weakened SAARC. By projecting its own inability to deal with neighbors, it only increases the risk of interference from real big bullies of the world that stand to benefit out of “low intensity conflicts”.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson stated the obvious: “Frequent postponement of SAARC summit conference has raised doubts about the seriousness with which the agenda for regional cooperation is being pursued in South Asia.” After Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz talked to Bangladesh PM Khalida Zia in the wake of Singh’s decision to pull out of the summit, he sarcastically remarked: “That (three years) hopefully is not the duration India has in mind for a rescheduled summit meeting.”

Handling of the SAARC summit, and the opportunity it provided to take forward the peace process with Pakistan, has now been added as another example of utter failures of the Manmohan Singh Government by critics who had entertained high expectations from him just eight months back. In fact, the only achievement of Singh so far, they say, is that he continues to be meandering through.

Had Vajpayee continued as PM in India, would he have wrecked the summit in the circumstances Singh faces now? Most probably not. From the days when he was just an opposition MP and later the Leader of Opposition in Parliament, Vajpayee has always held that the problem with India’s foreign policy was that it was too foreign-oriented.

He used to rap successive governments with his poser, “Is it necessary for us to have an opinion on every major event in every country?” When he took over as Foreign Minister and then as Prime Minister, he succeeded in keeping at bay the pundits of the Ministry of External Affairs who believed it was. It is pertinent to recall how admirably Vajpayee handled more desperate situations with remarkable maturity.

Back to the 11th SAARC summit of Jan 2002: There were strong indications of US considering sending a special envoy to India and Pakistan to lower the ante. While India had a strong reservation about the move, General Musharraf welcomed it, saying he was not disappointed at all. “If the two parties can’t resolve their differences and disputes, then it is necessary for a third party to facilitate resolving problems.”

It was apparently due to the intense pressure put by Washington on both India and Pakistan to de-escalate the situation with US Secretary of State Colin Powell speaking on the telephone to External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Abdul Sattar the previous day. The compelling reason to engage in informal and perfunctory discussions was essentially to send the signal that the line of communication between New Delhi and Islamabad had not snapped.

Answering a pointed question, Vajpayee said he would “definitely” participate in the next year’s SAARC summit to be held in Pakistan if the situation became normal by then (“isthithi saamanya rahi to zarror jaoonga”). That despite the fact he had been bitten not once but twice by the wily General, once after Lahore summit and again at Agra, which Musharraf transformed into an exercise at self-promotion at the expense of regional peace.

South Asia is one of the most dangerous places in the world. Two nuclear equipped powers stare each other eyeball to eyeball. One of them is lorded over by, as described by its former Prime Minister, a savage ‘trained commando versed in the game of camouflage’ with the audacity to openly boast: “Tension has not eased but has not worsened either and I would like to exercise restraint even though it is not easy for me being a military man.”

The other boasts of itself as “the world’s largest democracy” while in reality it has at the helm disparate groups of fighting, avaricious politicians come together with the sole motive of enjoying power by hook or by crook.

Whatever be the sins of commissions or omissions, in tackling the problems of India’s populace, of Atal Behari Vajpayee and the party he led, there can be no denying his acumen and sapience in foreign policy. It does not suffer from too much of foreign orientation. It is perhaps time that Vajpayee is called upon to take up the responsibility for forging regional reconciliation, without which initiatives like SAARC can never click. For reconciliation ought to precede any ‘cooperation’ and Vajpayee knows it the best.