Speaking to The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta for Walk the Talk, telecast on NDTV 24X7 on May 17, National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra confirmed that India came very close to a war with Pakistan in January (after the Dec 13 attack on Parliament) and May (after the Kaluchak attack) last year. Excerpts from the interview. Text courtesy, MEA.
How do you describe today’s situation, five years after your government came to power and you tried to give new direction to India’s foreign policy. Many people call it the new foreign policy, the friendship with US, re-establishing relationships with Europe, figuring out new Russia, opening up to Israel and all these ups and downs, more downs than ups that we’ve had with Pakistan. What kind of a journey has it been?
It’s been an uneven journey obviously, like life is uneven. But I think we can take some credit for opening ourself up to the international community and engaging ourself with the international community. And in turn the international community is engaging with us.
Is it more up then or more down if you look at five years.
I’d say that the balance is on the credit side, not the debit.
What are the highlights on the credit side?
Well, obviously we started off with the nuclear tests. Then within one month of that a dialogue with the US, that is between Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbott, started on June 11. From then, the dialogue with the US, Europeans and other big powers has been continuing.
There was a sense though that despite a long process of talks with US after the tests, a breakthrough was not quite... when did the breakthrough come?
Well, obviously the highlight of this dialogue was the visit of Clinton in March 2000. But I won’t say the dialogue between Jaswant and Talbott was a failure.
What’s the one big difference the Clinton visit made? What is the one new thing he said that turned the mood?
Well, obviously, his admiration for India, Indian democracy attracted a responsive chord from Parliament.
There are those who say that he, because of his personality and because of the way he conducted himself on that visit, somehow convinced the popular Indian mind that Americans could be friends, almost as the mood was in the Kennedy years. Is that true? Did he break 35 years of freeze?
Well, if it was not our conviction that the Americans could be friends, we wouldn’t be making these attempts... if we didn’t have that feeling that yes they could be friends, as the PM said they could be natural allies, we wouldn’t be doing all this.
If you look at the strategic picture, there are four things. One is the relationship with US which is on the up. The second is relationship with Pakistan which is mostly down on balance. Third is relationship with China which is maybe better. And fourth is our rediscovery of Soviet bloc or what used to be the Soviet bloc. I don’t know where that stays. Where do you think it is?
Well, generally speaking you are correct. That is what the situation is today. We are hopefully improving our relations with US. There is a process of normalisation with China. As the Defence Minister said the other day, in the last few years there has not been a single incident on the Line of Actual Control with China.
Does that mean that we are moving somehow towards accepting the de facto situation and carrying on with it?
I don’t think so because the idea is not to say that the Line of Actual Control is the border. The idea is to stabilise the LoC which it is now, and then to move on to border negotiations.
Is it true that in many of the recent phases of tension with Pak, when we had to mobilise forces, we have felt actually secure enough to pull out a lot of units from along the Chinese border?
Both during the Kargil conflict and last year’s shifting of our troops from the eastern to the western theatre, there were no threatening noises.
What about Pakistan’s special relationship with China?
They have a relationship which was built from 1963 onwards, 1961 onwards actually, and after the Chinese attack on us in 1962 it has been built up.
Is it commercial or political?
If you look at these two major streams, the decline in our relationship with Pakistan, the improvement in our relationship with the US, on balance are we gainers or losers?
Well, first of all I must question whether there is what you call a decline with Pakistan. The situation has been so since the beginning. Since the attack on Kashmir by tribals in 1947-48.
But we’ve come close to war twice in the past three years.
But we’ve had three wars in the past. If you say it’s a decline from Lahore, I’d agree with you. But generally speaking the state of relationship between India and Pakistan has been one of hostility if one might say.
How close did we come to war last year?
We were pretty close in January and then again in May.
May, after Kaluchak attack?
And when was it closer — in January or May?
I’d say the same both times.
And what was the motivation? Was it anger, frustration or was it just strategic logic that you know you have to sort out this problem now, the Pakistanis won’t listen, they will keep on bleeding you.
It was anger mixed with deterrence. That you don’t do it in the future. That was the idea.
When the two countries have nuclear weapons, there may not be any future.
People talk of nuclear weapons rather loosely. It’s not that easy to go and attack a country with nuclear weapons.
But was that calculation made when we thought of using the military option?
We seriously thought of using the military option or we were on the verge of using it?
Yes, that’s what I am saying. When you asked me how close we were to war, I said yes, we were very close.
But using the military option in a nuclearised scenario is a very complicated thing to do..
We had no desire to use nuclear weapons. And we did not think Pakistan would use nuclear weapons because (of) the symmetry being what it is between India and Pakistan. They can attack us but they know that we can wipe them out.
So there is mutually assured destruction.
Well, if you would like to say that, yes. But it’s not our destruction because we are too large to be destroyed.
That is the worrying part. In our country as well as in Pakistan there is an immature view of nuclear weapons. As if a nuclear bomb is an oversized Daisycutter. People don’t realise that if one city gets wiped out and the rest of the country is there, it’s not as if everything will carry on normally.
I agree with you entirely but I am talking about total destruction. You said mutually assured destruction. So the destruction could be much more on one side than on the other.
So did we make this calculation, simulation or did we have an idea where the war might stop or far it will go?
We had a fairly good idea. We did not think it was going to lead to a nuclear conflict.
Inspite of the noises from the other side.
Well, they keep on talking.
Are we more distant from war today than we were last year or could it change dramatically?
Today, at this moment we are, compared to last year.
It could change dramatically.
One would say if there is a grave incident like the attack on Parliament then of course it could change dramatically. That’s why we keep on saying, the PM keeps on saying, put an end to this. Because we’ll have a good atmosphere to sit down and talk about everything including J&K.
Even if there is an incident, how do we judge whether it’s an isolated incident or if it shows bad faith on the other side?
No, we judge it in this way — these terrorist outfits have been nurtured, nourished by Pakistan. So, they are responsible for these terrorist outfits.
You don’t buy the argument that some of them could be out of Musharraf’s control or that he’s also threatened by them?
If they are out of control then why not destroy their training camps? Why not destroy their launching pads? Why not destroy their communications infrastructure? Once you do that, we’ll know you are sincere.
Do you get a sense from the Americans that they are disappointed that promises made last year were not kept?
I don’t want to put words in their mouth but it is clear that what Musharraf promised them and what they conveyed to us has not been done.
But some have been delivered.
What? Nothing has been delivered.
There has been no reduction in terrorism? There has been no reduction in infiltration?
Where is the reduction? As the Raksha Mantri said, infiltration comes up and down. You talk of one moment it is down, you talk of another moment, it is up. So far as terrorist incidents are concerned, look at the horrible incident on April 24. How can you say terrorism is down.
But do you sometimes worry that in this situation, the Americans have acquired a role. I wouldn’t say a mediatory role, but each time, we talk through the Americans, the Pakistanis talk through the Americans.
We have to be absolutely clear on this subject. What is the role of the US, Europe? They are legitimately concerned about avoiding a war between India and Pakistan which could, in their view, lead to a nuclear holocaust. But when they come to us saying exercise restraint, please do this, do that, we say go and talk to Pakistan.
But they never talk down to us.
No, of course not. But when it comes to a dialogue with Pakistan there’s no third seat on the table. And they are fully aware of it.
There is no third seat. Nobody.
No, it’s just India and Pakistan. This distinction has to be made all the time.
The PM said the other day dhood ka jala, chaaj bhi phook-phook ke peeta hai, which is once bitten twice shy. Now this PM has been twice bitten so how does he go ahead and do this again?
Now what is the PM saying? As he said to Jamali, let us proceed stage by stage. Let us not jump into a summit. Let’s improve the atmosphere and then we can see. Meanwhile stop cross-border terrorism.
In Agra, the Pakistanis said they would only talk on Kashmir and nothing else. We said composite dialogue. Now, they are saying composite dialogue. This thing is going round and round the same table although the positions have reversed.
I don’t see how the positions have reversed because when we were earlier talking about unconditional dialogue, we did not have an attack on the Srinagar Assembly. We did not have an attack on Parliament. We didn’t have the Kaluchak massacre. We didn’t have Akshardham, Raghunath temple massacres.
Don’t you wish we had a stronger economy or we were a bigger power so we could look more of them in the eye as equals?
I certainly wish we had a stronger economy and we were a big economic power, not for the sake of looking them in the eye but for our own sake. If we had that we’d be noticed more.
We also see this government is moving very rapidly on diplomacy and foreign policy but seems to be stalling on economic reforms. Do you see a breakthrough or do you see this going on till the elections which may be a year-and-a-half from now?
I don’t think one can call it stalling but one should keep in mind that this is not China where you can take one decision and then it’s through. This is India, a democracy, a lot of people under the poverty line, a coalition government. So we cannot be acting in the same way as China. So what happens is it is a little up, a little down but I think the course is being maintained.
(Text courtesy, MEA)