Wednesday, 5 October, 2022
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Govt’s one foot, several mouths

Ministers and senior leaders should confine themselves to their own areas of responsibility.

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It seems that one of our former ministers visited Washington and caused so much confusion because of his pronounced Bengali accent that somebody in the Pentagon picked up the phone and asked his counterpart in the State Department, hey, so-and-so, do these Indians have more missiles than we think they do? What are these new names this guy has been dropping?

‘No, no. It’s the same Agni and Prithvi,’ said the South Asia veteran at the State Department, ‘it is just that these Indians speak 16 dialects of the English language.’ In fairness, though, all of us are allowed a few liberties with English. It is not our mother tongue and our ethnic diversity must never be seen as a liability.

But confusion in our system is created not merely by differing dictions but also by our own lack of responsibility, discipline and focus. How else would you view the differing statements emerging from our leaders on issues as diverse, but vital, as infiltration across the LoC and PSU disinvestment?

What would you, if you were American or Pakistani, think if you only looked at the varying assessments our key spokesmen have given on infiltration. First, the army chief said infiltration is down to 54 per cent. How he got such a precise figure we shall not ask for the details must be classified.

Then the external affairs minister said we have been completely let down by the international community and Pakistan has done nothing. Then he side-stepped the ‘54 per cent’ statement from the army brass rather cleverly by asking if, had only one tower collapsed in place of two, would the Americans have taken a casual view of Osama’s terror threat.

Then, the national security advisor told Tim Sebastian that the Pakistanis had done nothing. Finally, and inevitably now, the defence minister has joined the ‘debate’ by stating that infiltration has indeed gone down.

Also read: India’s foreign relations are in tatters and the Modi government has only itself to blame

Infiltration across the LoC should be a clear statement of one fact by one government. Why should it become a debate? Now, wait for the smirking face of Rashid Qureshi on television repeating all these claims and counter-claims (all by our own key people) and saying how confused ‘these Indians’ are.

He will, of course, take ‘54 per cent’ as the least inaccurate and count backwards. You can hate him, his smug, sniggering nonsense and all, but remember that you exposed your flank in the first place.

Even before this line of confusion surfaced our senior leaders had tied themselves down in knots over the prospect of the prime minister visiting Pakistan for the SAARC summit in January.

True to form, the first statement came from the lowest possible political level, from a person who won’t be the first to know of the PM’s intentions and whose only claim to fame is the fulsome praise he received from Musharraf for being his minister-in-waiting at Agra. Minister of State Digvijay Singh initiated the ‘controversy’ by stating, almost casually, and surely without any briefing at higher levels, that the prime minister may be going to Islamabad.

Almost immediately, his party elder George Fernandes endorsed that view. Then started familiar course correction. The prime minister himself, too experienced and shrewd to get committed one way or the other, evaded the question by asking (at his World Press Day lunch for the media) where was the hurry when even the dates had not been finalised?

This should have been the line to begin with. But by now the damage was done. Anybody confronted by a television camera knew he had a say on the prime minister’s travel plans. In which other serious nation does the establishment behave in so chaotic a manner?

On issues like disinvestment and economic reform there are, in any case, many views in this coalition. So some confusing noises on those can be overlooked. But you’d get sufficiently concerned if you merely looked at issues of national security.

On Kargil, we tied ourselves into knots with different spokesmen not able to decide whether it was a war, a war-like situation, low intensity conflict, or none of the above. Just before Pokharan-II, one minister (who should have been in the know) said China was an enemy or potential enemy or potential threat number one.

Another, handling a portfolio as harmless as parliamentary affairs, said China’s protests over our tests were like ‘ulta chor kotwal ko daante’ (the thief accusing the sheriff). All this while people who should have had more important things to do were wasting their time doing damage control.

Also read: No Ajit Doval, from Indira to Modi, majority govts are overrated. Don’t fear coalitions 

Don’t dismiss it merely as a vagary of coalition politics. The Israelis have a coalition as diverse and noisy as ours. Do their ministers routinely contradict each other on their policy on terrorism despite their wide internal differences?

In the US, while the media has been loaded with stories of a Powell-Rumsfeld split, they never speak publicly at cross-purposes. The other thing to learn from mature governments is that ministers and senior leaders confine themselves to their own areas of responsibility. This systemic discipline should be inbuilt in a democratic structure, particularly in a coalition.

So when Paul O’Neill comes to New Delhi he goes to the Sarojini Nagar vegetable mart, gets himself photographed buying tomatoes and talks only about trade and reform. You didn’t get a squeak out of him on terrorism. Just as we wouldn’t get a word on trade and economics from Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Armitage when they come calling. Here even the minister of state for coal holds forth on cross-border terrorism.

This lack of discipline causes serious damage. One clear example is the way we scored a self-goal in the post 13/12 build-up by letting the Americans as well as the Pakistanis create confusion over whether we were demanding an end to terrorism or infiltration. Different interlocutors, it seems, said different things and, suddenly, beginning with Armitage, the Americans were promising an end to infiltration.

It was thereabouts that we realised what was amiss and began demanding the dismantling of terrorist camps and the infrastructure of terrorism inside Pakistan and the part of Kashmir controlled by it. What was, therefore, a simple, straightforward demand, was divided into two steps. Pakistan now says it has taken one and accuses us of moving the goal-posts.

Even on infiltration, our own spokesmen’s views vary from 54 per cent to zilch and if the Pakistanis and the Americans are now trying to push the demand for a permanent end to terrorism into the future, linked to a dialogue, we should realise who gave them that escape route.

It was during those weeks of frenetic diplomatic activity (in June and July) that a visiting American diplomat had got so alarmed hearing different words from Indian interlocutors that he asked if they had ever knocked heads together and come up with a line from which no deviations, no nuancing, would be allowed? He pointed out that during the START talks American participants were given 3×5 cards with the official view on four key issues spelt out.

Nobody was then allowed to add or subtract a word, change a pause or nuance. A good question to ask our leaders will be, where are your 3×5 cards?

Also read: How Modi has made a ‘Nehruvian’ half-blunder on China & ignored investing in the military 


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