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A confident Manmohan responds to his critics news analysis

Siddharth Varadarajan

New Delhi: The Prime Minister’s statement on relations with Pakistan on Wednesday accomplished the impossible: silencing hardline critics in India fearful of a change in policy on the resumption of dialogue, while not saying anything that might compromise the standing of his potential interlocutors across the border or the prospects of peace between the two countries.

In being mindful of his Pakistani audience, Manmohan Singh was returning a favour to Yusuf Raza Gilani. Soon after Sharm el-Sheikh, the Indian Prime Minister had told Parliament the joint statement did not mean the composite dialogue would be resumed. Rather than publicly contradict him, the Pakistani Prime Minister had told reporters, much to the consternation of hardliners there, “Whatever [Dr. Singh] said on the floor of the House, that is what we agreed.”

Essentially, what the Prime Minister’s remarks have done is create room for the government to be flexible in its approach to Pakistan, giving it room to calibrate the pace of engagement to the degree to which Islamabad moves ahead on its commitments to act against terror.

Despite feverish media speculation about the Congress party having washed its hands of his Sharm el-Sheikh initiative, Dr. Singh spoke with the full backing of the Treasury benches as he confidently rebutted the Opposition’s charges one by one and defended the joint statement he had issued with Mr. Gilani on July 17. If proof was needed of how effective his intervention on Pakistan was, it was provided by BJP MP Sushma Swaraj, who rose to question him as soon as he had finished speaking. Ms. Swaraj, who only last week had referred to the joint statement as “shameful,” kept quiet on the subject this time around and asked only for clarifications on the government’s stand on climate change and reprocessing.

In the fullness of time, Dr. Singh’s response to the debate will be seen as a potential game changer in India’s official discourse on Pakistan, especially his emphasis on the inevitability of engagement, his clarity on the fact that the alternative to dialogue was war, his fear that the absence of peace with Pakistan would hold back South Asia and allow foreign powers to get involved in the region, and his recognition of the need to strengthen Pakistan’s civilian leaders.

On all these points, the Prime Minister is far ahead of his advisers and, perhaps, of the “national mood” that retired diplomats and generals still fighting the battles of the past. Of course, as far as the here and now is concerned, Dr. Singh stressed that the only practical agreement in Sharm el-Sheikh had been for the two foreign secretaries and foreign ministers to meet. The composite dialogue, he said, would have to wait.

But if there would be no sudden change of policy, the Prime Minister was also keen to emphasise the significance of Pakistan admitting for the first time ever that its territory had been used for terrorist acts against India. This, he reminded the Opposition, was more than the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government had managed to achieve. Recounting the setbacks like Kargil, the Kandahar hijacking and the terrorist attack on Parliament which followed the NDA’s peace initiatives in Lahore and Agra, Dr. Singh nevertheless praised Atal Bihari Vajpayee for the courage he had shown as Prime Minister in not giving up the quest for “permanent peace.”

He was bold enough to acknowledge that the Pakistani dossier on Mumbai, handed over before Sharm el-Sheikh, had allowed India to move forward because it showed Islamabad had made some progress in addressing New Delhi’s concerns.

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