Flush with the glory that he was the only non-dynasty person to be re-elected Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh has done in haste that he is regretting at leisure. The latest in the series of his ingrained habit of dancing to the American foreign policy tunes is the joint Indo-Pak statement issued at the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh on the sidelines of NAM summit. It is nothing if not capitulation by the “strongest” (What else, since he strongly resents being called the weakest!) Prime Minister India ever had had. Besides de-linking Pak-sponsored terror and resumption of Indo-Pak composite dialogue, Dr Singh acquiesced in Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani making a reference to “some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas” in the joint statement without stating the stark reality that trouble in the said province is an internal affair of Pakistan and that Balochistan has been rocked by violence since 1948. The Prime Minister virtually conceded that the known perpetrator of terrorism that adopted the infamous strategy of bleeding India to death by a million cuts is the victim of New Delhi-sponsored terrorism in Balochistan. Did he do it to please Uncle Sam? Was he under pressure from the superpower to start talking to the unfriendly neighbour?
Islamabad, which had the audacity to proclaim terrorists as “freedom fighters”, was forced to publicly commit that it wouldn’t allow its soil to be used for exporting terror, though it never honoured the pledge. International community too has, at long last, admitted that India is a victim of cross-border terrorism. The latest is the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement that Pakistan housed “syndicate of terrorism” and that Islamabad must bring perpetrators of Mumbai attack to justice. Even Pakistani President Zardari confessed that terrorists and extremists were deliberately created and nurtured by the country as a policy to achieve certain short-term tactical objectives. Unfortunately, our Prime Minister was the first to concede that Pakistan is a victim of terrorism while failing to mention that Islamabad was fighting terrorists it had promoted and nurtured because they had now turned against the promoter and that it continues to export terror to India. And now, he puts India on the defensive by allowing Geelani’s patently false claim about India’s role in disturbances in Balochistan in the joint statement without a rebuttal.
Dr Singh can’t be unaware of the recent history of Balochistan. Kalat, its principal kingdom, was on a different footing from the 550-odd princely states that merged with India or Pakistan in 1947. It was closer to Kabul and Muscat than British India. It was in 1948 that Khan of Kalat signed the instrument of accession to Pakistan without consulting the parliament of Baloch chiefs. There was an upsurge against the merger. Some Balochs, including Khan’s brother, escaped to Afghanistan and launched insurgency that has been at different periods sustained by Soviets and Afghanistan. There was some Indian involvement with insurgents during the Bangladesh war but it has been all quiet on the western front so far as New Delhi is concerned. Pakistan has brought Balochistan on the table to launch a diplomatic offensive to counter Indian concerns about Pakistan-based terror groups operating in India. The perception that Dr Singh was taken for a ride in Sharm el-Sheikh is strengthened by Gilani’s utterances after his return to Pakistan. The reference to Balochistan, he says, underlines Pakistan’s concerns over India’s interference in Balochistan and other areas. Gilani’s praise for Dr Singh’s “political sagacity and statesmanship” in restarting the dialogue is a cunning device to claim victory at Sharm el-Sheikh.
The Prime Minister has his own take on the statement. Responding to clarifications in the Rajya Sabha, he insisted that it hadn’t weakened New Delhi’s stand on Pakistan’s responsibility to combat terrorism directed against India. His interpretation of the controversial formulation “Action on terrorism shouldn’t be linked to talks” is that Islamabad can’t await other developments (read talks) before taking action against terror outfits. His interpretation carried conviction neither with the political class nor with the civil society. He is trying to wriggle out of the tricky situation he had himself created and ward off attacks from the Opposition by changing tracks. He now insists that when and in what form New Delhi broadens the dialogue with Pakistan will depend on future developments. Why, one may ask, was something on these lines not included in the joint statement? It would have served national interests better. Even those who are defending the government on the issue for one reason or the other do admit that the statement could have been better worded.
The joint statement has caused deep disquiet among Indian diplomats and even sections of Congressmen who privately regret the unseemly haste with which Dr Singh acquiesced in severing the link between terrorism and dialogue. Mainstream media has, by and large, taken a critical view of the statement, particularly the reference to Balochistan. A perceptive commentator has cautioned against holding talks with Pakistan on the sidelines of international events arguing that structured negotiations in either country may save the country the embarrassment caused by the Sharm el-Sheikh fiasco. It is a sad commentary on an erudite person like Dr Manmohan Singh. He is lucky to escape severer criticism. There would have been a public outcry against the sellout and demands for heads to roll if the Prime Minister had committed such a blunder a year later. Luckily for him, the honeymoon period is not yet over.
The fiasco in Egypt has indeed diluted the decade-old diplomatic bond between the terror and talks to the great advantage of Pakistan. Islamabad has exploited the space New Delhi conceded at Sharm el-Sheikh. Further, the statement has disrupted the national consensus that had emerged in the wake of 26/11 that there couldn’t be any progress in negotiations with Pakistan unless the latter cracked down on terrorism and bring to justice persons responsible for the Mumbai attack. The Prime Minister can’t escape responsibility for falling a prey to Gilani’s agenda. Diplomatic and political circles believe that it is almost impossible for India to talk to Pakistan on water, trade and sensitive issues like Kashmir even as Pak-based terror groups continue to attack Indian cities and threaten our strategic assets. There is a belated realisation in government circles too that there is insufficient political and institutional support for the resumption of composite dialogue at this point of time. Meaningful dialogue can’t be kick-started unless Islamabad proves its credentials by concrete action on the ground. No flip-flop as in the case of criminals wanted in Mumbai terror attack. The so-called “Gujral doctrine” can be revived only at India’s own peril. Dr Singh will soon discover that he has lost much of public support by sacrificing supreme national interests. Nations can’t afford to be magnanimous with unfriendly neighbours. Reciprocity is the acid test of international relations. The sooner the government realises this, the better it will be for it and the country.