Even a week after foreign minister S.M. Krishna returned from his disastrous visit to Pakistan, attempts are still being made to make sense of how and why the dialogue at the foreign ministers’ meeting in Islamabad came undone. The responsibility for the debacle is being seen to rest mostly with the Indian side, with everyone left wondering: does India have a coherent and well-defined Pakistan policy, and if it does, who is running it?
Home secretary G.K. Pillai’s comments exactly on the eve of Krishna’s visit cast a long shadow. His assertion that the ISI was behind the Mumbai terror attacks “from beginning to end” ostensibly hardened the Pakistani position. Especially since the suspicion gained ground that Pillai was not acting on his own, but was being prompted by higher-ups in the ministry.
“I don’t think Nirupama could have prevented it. And under the given circumstances, Krishna put up a great show.”
Lalit Mansingh, Former foreign secretary
Pillai’s remark having set the tone, things only deteriorated. Some say Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao, being a seasoned diplomat, and other members of the delegation could have retrieved the situation with some nimble footwork. Rao, they say, could have advised Krishna not to agree to anything more than a statement. And though the delegation did keep sending small pieces of papers to help Krishna give his replies, Rao could have intervened asking him not to go beyond the three questions agreed upon earlier. Maybe then Krishna wouldn’t have appeared so helpless when Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi lit into the Indian side, berating it for its inflexibility on discussing issues of vital concern.
However, former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh springs to Rao’s defence. “I don’t think Nirupama could have prevented it,” he says. “Under the circumstances, I also think foreign minister Krishna put up a very good show.”
The foreign minister did not think so. Miffed at the failure of the talks and his inability to get a breakthrough, Krishna decided to go public, calling in TV channels to voice his views. In one of his TV interviews, the usually mild-mannered Krishna let it be known that the home secretary had muddied the waters with his “ill-timed” comments on the ISI.
“If there are differences in the government, they should be kept behind closed doors and not aired on TV talk shows.”
Naresh Chandra, Former cabinet secretary
Even Krishna’s gentle put-down of Pillai’s indiscretion might seem to echo Pakistan’s sentiments on the subject or even justify its reaction. But other worthies in the Indian establishment seem less willing to condemn the home secretary outright, at least in public. National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon, for instance, endorsed Pillai’s statement at a seminar in New Delhi where he said LeT operative David Coleman Headley’s confessions revealed the nexus between militants and the Pakistan establishment.
Handpicked by Manmohan Singh and a close confidant of his, was the fact that the NSA was batting for Pillai reflective of the prime minister’s views? Did India believe it was time it did some plainspeaking with Pakistan? That’s not so self-evident. Sources say the PM was extremely upset with Pillai’s remarks and even asked home minister P. Chidambaram if he was aware his home secretary was going to make such a comment? Chidambaram vehemently denied having prior knowledge. However, with the PM not making any public comment on the issue, confusion and controversy continue. “Multiple and conflicting actions and voices are emanating from the government.... This is hardly a coherent Pakistan policy,” former Indian diplomat K.C. Singh told Outlook. “Whether the confusion is ideological or systemic, the PM needs to speak up.”
The confusion, however, arises not just from whether Pillai acted on his own accord or at someone else’s behest. It also stems from what mandate Krishna was given to engage with Pakistan, something that was decided at the cabinet committee on security meeting chaired by the PM. Should Krishna have raised the issue of terrorism with Pakistan when the home minister had already done so during his engagement with Pakistan interior minister Rahman Malik last month? “If terrorism is the core issue, then why talk to Pakistan, since it has shown no signs so far of making any progress on that front,” former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal told Outlook.
“Multiple, conflicting actions and voices are emanating from the government. The PM needs to speak up.”
K.C. Singh, Former Indian diplomat
Some observers feel it is the PM who is being isolated by his cabinet colleagues on the Pakistan issue. Manmohan Singh never tires of repeating that India and Pakistan have no option but to talk to each other. At Sharm el-Sheikh, he had tried to delink terrorism from other issues for talks with Pakistan. It was this spirit again that led him to meet his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, on the sidelines of the Bhutan saarc summit this April and the two sides agreed to renew talks.
Not many, though, share the PM’s optimism, either in the government or even in the party. Congress president Sonia Gandhi has so far said nothing on the issue. Perhaps she does not want to interfere in government policy, but it could well be that even she is not convinced that India would gain by engaging with Pakistan. In the event that Pakistan is just stringing India along without taking any serious action on 26/11 attackers—as many in the government and the party feel—then the Congress would lay itself open to attack from the opposition.
Hence Sonia Gandhi’s silence. Her ambiguity, however, has allowed hardliners like Chidambaram to move in for the kill and argue that India continue to stress on the issue of terrorism with Pakistan if it expects to see any result. Interestingly, however, though the home minister had brought up terrorism during his talks with Malik, he was careful not to mention the ISI directly in connection with 26/11. He just referred to “elements” in the Pakistan establishment linked to those involved in 26/11. One reason perhaps was that the US, which had been sharing information with India on the Mumbai terror attack and had even given Indian officials access to Headley, had cautioned India not to mention the ISI directly. Alternatively, Chidambaram’s caution could have arisen from the knowledge that very little cooperation can be expected from Pakistan if one were to talk about the ISI’s direct links with terrorists.
“If terrorism is the core issue, then why talk to Pakistan, since it has shown no sign of progress on that front.”
Kanwal Sibal, Former foreign secretary
Why then did Pillai decide to go the extra mile in naming the ISI directly? Simplistically, we could assume he wasn’t aware of the impact his remark would have in Pakistan. The more plausible explanation is that there is a conscious design in the Indian security establishment to talk of the ISI’s links with the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack more openly.
Again, there could be two reasons. One, Pakistan’s growing clout in Afghanistan, where its cooperation is being seen by Washington (and even Kabul) as imperative in stabilising the country. Two, since the terror links are actually serving its interests everywhere, the Pakistan army establishment is not willing to give up on it. India knows that unless it brings the issue out in the open and publicly nails the links between the ISI and the terror groups, the US and other key world players will not put the requisite pressure on Pakistan to act urgently on the Mumbai attackers. Hence the renewed attempt by the security establishment in New Delhi to make progress on terror preconditional for any improvement in Indo-Pak relations.