Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rarely speaks his mind in public on the major issues of the day. However, on June 29, 2011, in his interaction with five editors from the print medium, he spoke at length on domestic issues as well as the strategic environment in India’s neighbourhood. He noted with concern the deteriorating international economic environment and said India’s neighbourhood was a very uncertain one. He said, “India would have to swim through all this adversity and keep our heads high if we have to come through.”
Commenting on the planned draw-down of US and other NATO-ISAF troops scheduled to begin in July 2011, as approved by President Barack Obama recently, the Prime Minster said that was not good for India. “It does hurt us. It could hurt us. No one knows what is going to happen in Afghanistan.” However, he did not spell out India’s options to deal with the emerging situation. He once again emphasised that India supported reconciliation in Afghanistan: “I (had) told the Afghan Parliament that the reconciliation should be Afghan-led. I think (President) Hamid Karzai and other politicians can work on that. You cannot carry the good-bad Taliban distinction much too far.”
Maintaining a cautious approach towards Pakistan, the Prime Minister repeated his stand about visiting Islamabad. He had said that he would visit Islamabad only when he was convinced that there had been sufficient progress in the ongoing talks and there was a substantive agreement to be signed. He was not convinced that Pakistan had done enough to eliminate terrorism emanating from its soil but believed that “India should continue to talk and engage with Pakistan to solve outstanding issues”. Obviously, the PM prefers to hold out an olive branch and disfavours a confrontational approach.
He expressed his satisfaction with the progress in India’s relations with Bangladesh. “The Bangladesh Government has gone out of its way to help us in apprehending anti-India insurgent groups that were operating from Bangladesh for long. And, that is why we have been generous in dealing with Bangladesh. We are not a rich country, but we offered it a line of credit of $1 billion when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came here. We are now looking at ways and means of some further unilateral concessions. We are also looking at ways and means of finding a practical and pragmatic solution to the sharing of Teesta waters. I plan to go there myself...”
However, he expressed his unhappiness about extremist forces in Bangladesh and said, “We must reckon that at least 25 per cent of the population of Bangladesh swears by the Jamiat-ul-Islami and they are very anti-Indian, and they are in the clutches, many times, of the ISI. So, the political landscape in Bangladesh can change at any time.” This became an embarrassing faux pas as his words were misinterpreted in Bangladesh to mean that 25 per cent of the population is anti-Indian. However, Foreign Minister S M Krishna managed to soothe tempers in Bangladesh during his visit that followed shortly after the PM’s remarks. In fact, Krishna’s successful visit has set the tone for the PM’s visit later in September.
The Prime Minister welcomed the defeat ofthe LTTE in Sri Lanka. He advised the Sri Lankan government to find an amicable solution to the Tamil problem that is acceptable to the Tamilian people. He said, “The Tamil problem does not disappear with the defeat of the LTTE. The Tamil population has legitimate grievances. They feel they are reduced to second-class citizens. And our emphasis has been to persuade the Sri Lankan government that we must move towards a new system of institutional reforms, where the Tamil people will have a feeling that they are equal citizens of Sri Lanka, and they can lead a life of dignity and self-respect.” While India has been quietly interceding with the government of Sri Lanka to quickly resolve the Tamil Eelam matter, its continuing silence on the issue of large-scale human rights violations by the Sri Lankan army during Eelam War-IV two years ago, as clearly brought out in the Channel 4 documentary “Killing Fields of Sri Lanka”, is difficult to comprehend.
The Prime Minister did not express any views on the continuing political and constitutional stalemate in Nepal or on India’s relations with China and Myanmar. Overall, the Prime Minister’s pronouncements reiterated India’s known position on most issues regarding India’s relations with its neighbours and were marked by a renewed emphasis on continuity. Observers who were looking for some bold initiatives to resolve ongoing challenges would have been deeply disappointed. As the largest country in the region, India must take the lead to settle bilateral as well as multilateral problems, no matter how complex and how challenging these might be.
Brig Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd) is Director, CLAWS
(The views expressed in the article are that of the author and do not represent the views of the editorial committee or the centre for land warfare studies).