Indo-Pak: Back to Business Unusual

For the third week in succession, Indian polity was enthralled by a foreign policy issue -- a rare happenstance by any standards. The former external affairs minister and the current Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee took note of the unusual development in a speech in Parliament this week. He told his fellow legislators, "I am glad that for a change we are discussing broad macro issues in the Lok Sabha (House of the People) and not some issues of local interest."

But then the issue at hand is about as local as it can get. Pakistan is not just neighbor but a broken half of the same crucible. What the Indian legislators debated this week was the controversial joint statement signed by representatives of India and Pakistan at the end of the meeting between the two prime ministers in Sharm-El-Sheikh in Egypt, mid July.

The points of contention were the apparent concessions India made to Pakistan. First was the delinking of terrorism against India sponsored by cross border actors from the 'composite dialogue' process between the two countries. The second was the surprise inclusion of the ethnic troubles in Pakistan's Balochistan province in the agenda of Indo-Pak discourse.

The charge made by the Parliamentary opposition parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party was that the current Indian government of Dr Manmohan Singh has supposedly diluted the intractable national position that there could be no negotiations between India and Pakistan until the latter dealt with the terrorist sponsors on its own soil.

Even more trenchant criticism was reserved for the Balochistan formulation. A former external affairs minister and BJP leader, Yashwant Sinha, reviled it as a huge blunder that would come back to bite India each time the country raised the issue of terrorism and militant insurgency in Kashmir in the future.

Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh borrowed a phrase from the Cold War era US-USSR dialogue indulged by the former president of the USA, Ronald Reagan with Mikhail Gorbachev. "Trust and verify" became Singh's leitmotif in his statement in Parliament this week, something he repeated more than a couple of times in an hour-long performance.
It was increasingly becoming clear that the party's agenda went beyond what it thought to be its stout defense of India's national interest. Laced with the broader goal was an intensely partisan interest of rallying the traditional support base of the party that was deeply suspicious of the country's Western neighbor.

Pakistan also did not help the cause of Singh as soon after signing of the joint statement, the country's Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani portrayed that the delinking of terrorism from the 'composite dialogue' was a major triumph for the policies of his government. He even faintly pointed at the inclusion of Balochistan in the discourse of the two countries as a sort of underlining one of the roots of the country's current troubles.

All the while, the official Indian side made protestations to the effect that there could not be any meaningful dialogue between the two countries if terrorism against India were to continue. This was stated by officials down from the prime minister. There were two curious kinds of responses from official India in the midst of all this.

First, the seniormost foreign policy practitioner amongst the bureaucrats, the Foreign Secretary (he retired later this week) Shiv Shankar Menon said at the height of the controversy in India that the joint statement was a case of "bad drafting." His statement seemed designed to give the impression that the apparent concession to Pakistan was a draftsman's fault.

The second such statement came from the newly minted politician who is also the junior external affairs minister of the country, the former undersecretary general to the United Nations, Shashi Tharoor (also a fellow blogger on Huffington Post). Tharoor stated, "The joint statement does not have any legal validity." It almost seemed he was saying that India's words in the international realm had little meaning unless they were made in codiciled covenants.

All this had given an impression that Dr Manmohan Singh had lost the gumption he had shown by signing on to the joint statement. It seemed that the path was being paved for him to withdraw from the salutary de-linkage that in effect gives a benefit of doubt to the current Pakistani dispensation. But thankfully at the end Singh held steadfast.

Not in small measure was his courage bolstered by the support of Sonia Gandhi, the supremo of the ruling Congress Party, to which Singh belonged. She addressed a meeting of the party legislators the day the Lok Sabha debate opened. And she extended a studied support to Singh that became the beacon for the rest of the party. At the end, this late intervention made the day for the government side.