Journalist | Writer | Analyst
The Prime Minister’s speech in Parliament on Wednesday on Pakistan and terrorism was one of the finest I’ve seen him make… I can’t say he has brought complete clarity to a policy that is still contradictory and confused but he has opened up room for the government to be more flexible and innovative in the months ahead. And given the hysterical response which greeted Sharm el-Sheikh, that is no mean achievement…
30 July 2009
A confident Manmohan opens space for flexible response
New Delhi: The Prime Minister’s authoritative statement in Parliament on relations with Pakistan accomplished the impossible: answering hardline critics in India fearful of the resumption of dialogue while not compromising the domestic credibility of his potential interlocutors across the border or hurting the prospects for peace between the two countries.
In being equally mindful of his Pakistani audience, Manmohan Singh was returning a favour to Yusuf Raza Gilani. Soon after his Sharm el-Sheikh meeting, the Indian Prime Minister had told Parliament the joint statement’s reference to delinking action on terror from the composite dialogue process did not mean talks would automatically be resumed. Rather than publicly join issue, the Pakistani Prime Minister had graciously told reporters — much to the consternation of hardliners there — that “whatever [Dr. Singh] said on the floor of the House … is what we agreed.”
That is why Dr. Singh was careful to emphasise on Wednesday the need for India to make sincere efforts to live in peace with Pakistan, to reach “an honourable settlement of the problems between us,” to keep channels open. “Unless we want to go to war with Pakistan, dialogue is the only way out,” he asserted at the end of his speech, “but we should do so on the basis of ‘trust but verify’.”
Despite feverish media speculation about the Congress having washed its hands of his latest initiative, Dr. Singh spoke with the full backing of the Treasury benches as he rebutted the Opposition’s charges and defended the joint statement of July 17. If proof was needed of how effective his intervention on Pakistan was, BJP MP Sushma Swaraj, who rose to question him as soon as he had finished speaking, provided it. Ms. Swaraj, who only last week had referred to the joint statement as “shameful”, kept quiet on the subject this time around, asking only for clarifications on the government’s stand on climate change and reprocessing.
In the fullness of time, Dr. Singh’s response to the debate will be seen as a potential game changer in India’s official discourse on Pakistan, especially his emphasis on the inevitability of engagement, his clarity on the fact that the alternative to dialogue was war, his fear that the absence of direct talks with Pakistan would allow foreign powers to get involved in the region to India’s detriment, and his recognition of the need to strengthen Pakistan’s civilian leaders.
On all these points, the Prime Minister is far ahead of the “national mood” that retired diplomats and generals still fighting the battles of the past have created on our TV channels. Of course, as far as the here and now is concerned, Dr. Singh stressed that the only practical agreement in Sharm el-Sheikh had been for the two foreign secretaries and foreign ministers to meet. The composite dialogue, he said, would have to wait.
But if there is going to be no immediate change of policy, the Prime Minister was also keen to emphasise the significance of Pakistan admitting for the first time that its territory had been used for terrorist acts against India. This, he reminded the Opposition, was more than the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government had managed to achieve. Recounting the setbacks like Kargil, the Kandahar hijacking and the terrorist attack on Parliament which followed the NDA’s peace initiatives in Lahore and Agra, Dr. Singh nevertheless praised Atal Bihari Vajpayee for the courage he had shown as Prime Minister in not giving up the quest for “permanent peace.”
He was also generous enough to acknowledge that the Pakistani dossier on Mumbai, handed over before Sharm el- Sheikh, had allowed India to move forward because it showed Islamabad had begun to act against some of the terrorists involved. Of course, the dossier “showed progress, though not adequate progress” in addressing India’s concerns and he hoped Islamabad would do more.
It is clear that resumption of dialogue is very much on the horizon but India will calibrate the pace of engagement to the degree to which Islamabad moves ahead on its commitments to act against terror.
Through his intervention, however, the Prime Minister has steered the bilateral relationship away from the dead-end to which the Opposition’s arguments would have sent it and created room for the government to be more flexible in its approach.