February 23, 2020
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Advani Draws A Hard Line

The home minister charts an independent agenda on Kashmir affairs, even as the PMO tries to calm things down

Advani Draws A Hard Line

THE confusion in the government seemed complete. In the battle of words that emanated from unexpected quarters—notably politicians close to home minister L.K. Advani waxing eloquent on diplomatic affairs with the same elan they reserve for rivals in general elections—the home minister was seen as seeking an unchartered territory. At the end of the day, the only section left out of the statement game was the foreign ministry, embodied in the good likeliness of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. The result: over the weekend, the PMO made a last-ditch effort to get professional diplomats to do the talking and keep the politicians out. However, it remained unclear whether Vajpayee’s express missives at damage control included curbs on Advani as well.

 Just how much influence Advani has over the agenda was underscored by his taking over the charge of the department of Jammu and Kashmir affairs, a charge initially held by the home ministry but till recently held by the prime minister. A high-power meeting held last fortnight—between Advani, defence minister George Fernandes, Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah and newly-appointed governor Girish Saxena, top members of his ministry as well as the Defence brass—proved one thing: Advani is firmly in control of not just the internal security apparatus, but operations outside the national boundaries as well.

Sources close to Advani reveal, in diplomatic terms, that the home minister is his own man, a politician who will call the shots without any encumbrances, with the backing of his party, if not the entire government. More importantly: in the aftermath of the bomb, the proposals advocated by Advani could radically alter the Indian establishment’s traditional stands on security and terrorism.

The prime evidence of the new order of things was the meeting itself—initiated at the behest of Advani and Farooq to cleanse his troubled state of Pakistani-sponsored militants—coupled with the political philosophy of Advani, which clearly calls for a hard line. After the long meeting, Advani bluntly asked Pakistan to lay off and "roll back" the proxy war, failing which they would have to face the consequences. He also initiated a ‘proactive’ role for Indian security agencies, as opposed to the ‘reactive’ policy that has so far been the touchstone of the Indian security establishment. Get them, before they get you, is the new motto.

There’s more to the ‘proactive’ approach. Advani told the meeting that the option of ‘hot pursuit’ should be adopted: do not let mercenaries draw first blood. Get them first, if need be, chase them inside their own territory. According to a participant of the meeting, the Advani line, which is also the dominant line, is clear. "For far too long, Pakistan has been creating trouble for us in various places, tantamount to blackmail. They have been indulging in cross border terrorism, specially in Kashmir. No longer. We will not fight shy of using our strength, nor will security be neglected due to international pressure," he says.

Another provocation for the meeting was the home minister’s perception that with the nuclear explosion, Pakistan is likely to intensify the decade-long infiltration into the Valley. Added to this were fears that western powers, already annoyed with India over the explosion, may turn a blind eye to Pakistani machinations.

ADVANI’S statements—coupled with key Vajpayee aide Pramod Mahajan’s views on China—set hearts fluttering in the subcontinent. While Pakistan premier Nawaz Sharif appealed to world opinion, the reaction inside the country was equally strong. Congress spokesperson Salman Khurshid warned that for the first time a home minister was exceeding his brief: from internal security to influencing foreign relations, thus exposing the hidden agenda of the BJP. "Instead of looking for some supposed difference of opinion in the Congress party, he could do well to attend to the debris covering our politics since the BJP began the demolition of India’s foreign policy which has stood the test of time for over five decades," he said. The Congress, Khurshid added, considers it irresponsible and dangerous to use this occasion to unleash a wave of acrimony and make provocative gestures towards our neighbours.

The air was further vitiated when Union minister Madan Lal Khurana reportedly told journalists in Jammu that all Pakistan needed was to "tell us the time and place" for "a fourth war". Though Khurana claims he had been misquoted, the damage was done. Outraged Left and Samajwadi Party leaders like Harkishen Singh Surjeet, A.B. Bardhan and Amar Singh flayed Advani for his ‘jingoistic’ statements and ministers of the Vajpayee government for talking out of turn in areas where "their opinions were not called for". BJP spokesman K.L. Sharma countered that he was amazed that the Congress and the Left were speaking Pakistan’s language. He also recalled Rajiv Gandhi’s "naani yaad aajayegi" quote to deflect the charge that only the BJP tended to be unduly provocative.

A crackdown in the Valley on militants seems imminent. More importantly, Kashmir policy is set to change drastically. Special secretary in the home ministry Mukund Behari Kaushal is to head a team of top security officials on an ‘action plan’ to flush out militants any which way.

Asked whether hot pursuit could take Indian forces across the line of control (LOC), Advani answered that he could not rule out anything. For the first time, the home minister has differentiated between what is happening in Kashmir and the Northeast: while the precarious Northeast scenario is described as ‘insurgency-ridden’, the Valley is a straight ‘proxy war’.

Initiating dialogue with recaltricant leaders in the Valley is something Advani is unlikely to work too hard at. In what marks a major change, the BJP leader is reportedly not too keen to talk to militant groups—Hurriyat or non-Hurriyat. Says a source: "Successive Congress and United Front governments have maintained that talking to militants will help. As we know by now, it is not going to work. You begin to talk to one leader, and out comes another one who may not even be listed as an undesirable in our files. Where do you go from there?"

However, any changes in policy, say observers, will have to be explained better by the government—particularly after the damage caused last week. Already, the PMO has decided to withdraw Pramod Mahajan from his daily public briefings and has announced that henceforth all briefings on foreign affairs will be conducted by the MEA.

Within the MEA, there is a great deal of consternation about professional politicians shooting from the hip. Officials are particularly miffed regarding the broadside on China. An official on the China desk speaks of how difficult it is to negotiate with the Chinese—often a simple shift of nuance could take weeks to sort out. To have that blown out by one single statement is galling. Their argument is that even if you concede that ties with Pakistan were bound to suffer post-nuclear bomb, the same should not have happened with China.

According to sources, the MEA has been working on Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to the prime minister, to rein in those speaking on foreign affairs. The first sign that the MEA was beginning to take control of foreign affairs was the fact that Mishra addressed the press conference at the Press Information Bureau (PIB) on May 22, where he announced a moratorium on further nuclear tests. The MEA sees Mishra as their own man. He is a former foreign service officer and prefers that the MEA alone should expound views on external affairs. Mishra had given a detailed briefing to the press after Vajpayee’s initial announcement on the day of India’s nuclear tests.

TO reinforce this point, foreign secretary K. Raghunath met journalists on May 23 in the room of joint secretary K.C. Singh, the foreign office spokesman, where they spoke about the Non Aligned Meeting Summit. Foreign secretaries normally either meet the press in the PIB conference hall or their own room. But this step had become necessary to reassert that it’s the joint secretary (XP) who gives the government line on foreign policy and not the others.

While everyone else has now been told to lay off foreign affairs, sources within the PMO say that the prime minister does not know how to get Advani to keep quiet. The point of both Mishra and Raghunath addressing journalists on successive days was meant to send a signal to Advani as well. Which is why, sources say, during the home minister’s briefing last Friday on electoral reforms, Advani categorically declined to take any questions on Kashmir or Pakistan.

Vajpayee is apparently in the midst of the most extensive damage control exercise so far. Pronouncements on foreign policy, say sources, will now be the prerogative of the foreign secretary and Brajesh Mishra. Both of whom are meeting experts on how to control the situation and turn it to India’s advantage. Former foreign secretaries J.N. Dixit and Muchkund Dubey have been called in for consultations. And Vajpayee too has reportedly been holding consultations with security experts and academics.

Clearly, the MEA as well as the ministry of home affairs are going to have their hands full in the days to come. Changes in policy will have to be effected on ground as well. Large logistical changes can only be expected in the form of better arms hardware for Jammu and Kashmir. And this is now on the cards. In the event, Farooq Abdullah also has a role cut out for himself. More than anyone else, he was jubilant at "the new will" that has emerged after the bomb. For the BJP, it couldn’t get much better than that. By all accounts, Advani could well redefine internal security as never before. And there are not many in the government who are going to attempt to rein him in.

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