Manmohan Singh’s shrinking room for manoeuvre on Pakistan
It is more than two weeks since Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a declaration with his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani aimed at rebuilding ties, but the attacks on Singh haven’t abated at home.
By agreeing to delink terrorism from the broader peace process and including a reference to the threats inside Pakistan’s troubled Baluchistan province – which Pakistan says is stoked by India – Singh is seen to have gone too far to accommodate the neighbour without getting anything in return.
If the sustained nature of the attacks from the security establishment, the Hindu nationalist opposition and the sniper firing from within Singh’s ruling Congress is any indication, he has a rocky path ahead in any engagement with Pakistan.
As Pratap Bhanu Mehta who heads the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi notes, the continuing controversy over the Sharm el-Sheikh statement poses a huge challenge for the prime minister. “He has to recognise how much at odds his strategy on Pakistan appears to be with a lot of public opinion.”
You can be sure the next time Singh meets Gilani or anyone else from the Pakistani establishment in some third nation (a trip to Islamabad is hard to comprehend on current public opinion), there will be a billion people watching him. They will scrutinise every move, every comment, and every word that he signs off on.
There is even a piece by Ramachandra Guha, one of India’s foremost modern historians, pointing out that three men in charge of India’s foreign policy – Singh, foreign minister S. M. Krishna and National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan were all on the wrong side of 75, and at a time when India’s foreign policy faced a daunting challenge. “In the rocky ocean of global politics, the Indian ship of State can carry one old man, perhaps even two. But three?” he asks.
This is not very flattering and it feeds into the broader picture that critics have drawn – Singh and co committed a blunder at Sharm-el-Sheikh and are now stuck with it.
All this in effect leaves Singh with very little room to manoeuvre further in any negotiation with Pakistan. It was always going to be a bit more difficult for the Congress to sell a peace deal than perhaps the Bharatiya Janata Party, even if it were to get better terms. Such is the perception. Singh has perhaps made it harder for himself, unless he gets a win-win deal from Pakistan.
Already the foreign policy establishment including former diplomats who tend to exert considerable influence over how perceptions get shaped, are calling upon the bureaucrats to undo the damage done by the political masters.
All very extraordinary.
Here is former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal saying in this article “at the political level probably Baluchistan will be on the table, but at the bureaucratic level we must keep it out, such as in the anti-terror mechanism exchanges.”
Another former Indian diplomat K.C Singh is quoted as saying in the same article that “Balochistan is now permanently embedded as an agenda in India-Pakistan dialogue. It will play out for long, even after Manmohan Singh is no longer the Prime Minister.”
And what if the whole thing turns ugly and there is an attack from Pakistan. What will Singh be left with? Will he be forced into action then? Some people such as former intelligence chief B. Raman are already reading back to Singh, U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s celebrated “trust but verify line” that he used while defending his outreach to Pakistan.
Reagan, Raman says, ordered an investigation into the bombing of a discotheque in West Berlin in which some U.S. soldiers were killed in 1986. The U.S. investigators established that the attackers came from Libya. After verification, he ordered the U.S. Air Force to bomb the training centre in Libya.
Will Singh do the same? “Indian investigators have clearly verified and established that the terrorists who attacked Mumbai were trained in PoK (Pakistan occupied Kashmir).”
“Will the Prime Minister emulate Reagan?”
[Photograph of Singh and Gilani at Sharm el-Sheikh and the lone surviving gunman in the Mumbai attacks, Mohammad Ajmal Kasab, a Pakistani national who last month admitted his role]