The situation would have been ludicrous if it had not been so tense-the sight of external affairs minister Jaswant Singh escorting three top-notch militants to Kandahar and to freedom, in exchange for the release of 155 hostages. The militants hands were tied behind their backs throughout the flight. But so, it would seem, were the ministers, if only metaphorically-there was, its said, no choice but to send him. "This was the endgame of the hostage situation and we did not want anything to go wrong-if we had sent a more junior official and there were some last-minute hitches, it would have taken time to phone back to Delhi for a reaction," says a senior source in the ministry of external affairs (mea). And the phone conversations might have been tapped anyway.
But critics argue that if porous phones were the problem, why then did they even bother with sending joint secretary Vivek Katju? "Why did they not send someone senior like Brajesh Mishra instead?" asks veteran journalist and Rajya Sabha member Kuldip Nayar.
But more to the point, former prime minister I.K. Gujral says Singhs visit has sent the wrong signals to the Taliban, which is not recognised by India. "Initially, we were under the impression that the deal with the hijackers was still to have been struck which is why Singh was needed. But subsequently, we learnt that the negotiations were over-and it did not make sense then to send the minister. The whole thing had been sewn up, so where are the last-minute hitches to that?" he asks. Thanks to the visit, Gujral believes that Indias Afghan policy is now confused and under strain.
Eyewitnesses report that Jaswant Singh seemed uncomfortable at the prospect of sharing a flight with the militants. That discomfort has multiplied with criticism from within the BJP. BJP leader K.R. Malkani said recently that Singhs presence in Kandahar has "cleared the way for the recognition of the de facto government of Afghanistan". Nayar says that the meas explanations of Singhs visit "is just a rigmarole to avoid responsibility". He believes even the prime minister was against sending Singh. "As far as I know, the matter of who was to go was not discussed in the Cabinet, just the matter of the militants release was discussed."
In order for the episode to make any sense, foreign policy expert Amitabh Mattoo believes that the government must come clean. "After all, the Taliban deadline was only meant to pressure India and the only way that Jaswant Singh can come out well is if there is a clear statement from the government that his visit was tactical and that the Taliban was the visible face of the hijackers." Will Singh come clean, then?