Saturday, October 07, 2006

That sinking feeling (October 8, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

No amount of ham-fisted spin-doctoring and the desperate resurrection of a 35-year-old slogan can take away from what is fast becoming an open secret: the floundering government of Manmohan Singh. In the early days of the UPA Government, it made sense to contrast the sincerity of the Prime Minister with the blundering ways of his coalition colleagues. Today, there is not even that fig-leaf. By desperately trying to bush aside taunts and show that he is indeed leadership material, the Prime Minister has exposed his own inadequacies and ineptitude. Nothing demonstrates this better than his laughable attempts at diplomacy.

The evidence is there in full public gaze. It has taken not even a fortnight for the contrived Havana bonhomie with Pakistan to be overwhelmed by the slippery General’s cigar smoke. Even if there are some missing links in the Mumbai Police Commissioner’s assertion that the July 11 blasts were the handiwork of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba and local traitors, the implication of his charge that the whole massacre was conducted under the benign supervision of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is grave. Since the preliminary findings of the Mumbai police inquiry were available to the Prime Minister and his National Security Adviser when they arrived at the Non-Aligned Movement summit, it follows that the Havana agreement on a joint terror mechanism was signed with a man our Prime Minister knew was the chief patron of terrorism.

Nor is there any basis to de-link the ISI from President Pervez Musharraf. Responding to the growing disquiet in the West over the ISI’s complicity in the Taliban’s resurgence in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan, Musharraf defended his so-called state-within-a-state aggressively. He told BBC’s Newsnight that the ISI was a “disciplined force”. When it was pointed out that a leaked British Ministry of Defence (MoD) report advocated that a future civilian government should send the army to the barracks and disband the ISI, Musharraf retorted angrily that the MoD should disband itself first.

By refusing to perpetuate the fiction that the ISI is somehow an autonomous cabal, Musharraf was, somewhat uncharacteristically, not being economical with the truth. However, by choosing to paint Pakistan as a co-victim of terrorism, the Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary have compromised India’s diplomatic offensive against terrorism. The US Ambassador to Pakistan wasn’t being needlessly insolent by suggesting that India should have first given the Mumbai evidence to Pakistan before going public. The logic of the Havana agreement is that the victim and the terrorist must conduct a joint whodunit.

And why blame Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry for dismissing the Mumbai investigations as preposterous. If Pakistan is the victim of terrorism, how can it be accused of masterminding terror?

By trying, like some others before him, to find a place in history, Manmohan has dug India into a fox hole. The relentless pursuit of a maverick foreign policy has resulted in India being taken less and less seriously in international circles.

Last week, there was the expected ignominy over the Indian candidate to the UN Secretary-General’s post—actually he was his own candidate who used India as an expedient launching pad—which exposed the limits of Indian influence. Simultaneously, there was the strange spectacle of the UPA’s strategic ally, the CPI(M), deciding that India’s priority in the UN strategy is to secure Venezuela’s place in the Security Council! Indeed, with India slipping down the value chain, the CPI(M) has decided that it makes more sense to now flaunt its credentials as China’s liaison agent in India.

Then there was India’s stand-offish attitude towards the ongoing NATO offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan—an indifference that may have convinced the Washington beltway that India is unlikely to make the jump from potential to performance. If, as a result, the Indo-US nuclear deal is timed out by the Senate, it will signal Manmohan Singh joining Chandra Shekhar, Charan Singh, Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral in the pantheon of the insignificant. The dress-rehearsal was his importunate visit to South Africa and the speech to an empty stadium in Durban.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, October 8, 2006)

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