For New Delhi, a week that wasn't
NEW DELHI - Sometimes sports broadcasters, during breaks between matches, show montages of on-field blunders - like goalkeepers devising ever-more-entertaining means of scoring own goals. The Manmohan Singh government is in such an unassailable position in the Indian parliament that any injury to it could have only been self-inflicted. And last week it duly obliged, putting on a show of its own little package of goof-ups.
With unerring precision, it found a banana peel at every other step. As foreign policy own goals tumbled in one after the other, what one heard was not canned laughter but a unanimous expression of outrage from the opposition.
None of the events, which unfolded in a blur of multilateral summits, actually belonged in the province of comedy. Because, in a sense, they can be seen to have entailed sudden, unexpected and critical shifts of position and strategy - to the extent that the opposition was able to talk about a "bartering away of India's interests".
First, there came a document in which India was seen to have ceded too much ground - and unnecessarily so - to Pakistan by bringing to the table hitherto non-existent complications.
The visit of United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for all its flawless choreography, has landed the Manmohan Singh dispensation in hot soup. Tucked away in a joint declaration filled with noble bilateral noises was a nuclear end-use monitoring agreement (EUMA). The agreement allows US inspectors into high-end defense installations and places the use of US-sourced technology in a restrictive framework.
The opposition, which until then seemed about to join the global mass of unemployed, was suddenly back in business. The left, which regards any truck with the US with suspicion, had found common cause with the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party's nationalistic agenda. The bugbear of India becoming a client state (rather than an equal partner) in an imperialistic American design was resurrected as the central theme as both joined hands in Parliament to pillory the government.
Worse, the ruling United Progressive Alliance's own partners were found ranged on the side of the critics. As the shindig filled the media, the Congress party stopped short of withholding endorsement of the deal with the US. All it did was put the choice of action and words squarely within the ambit of foreign affairs, saying no government should have to conduct foreign policy "looking over its shoulder" all the time.
Still, the party's unease with the excessive concessions made on the Pakistan front was plain to see. With assembly elections due in the major western state of Maharashtra, and the ongoing trial of the Mumbai terror accused Ajmal Amir Kasab framing overall Indo-Pak relations in a state of heightened salience, the party is rightly apprehensive. Any perceived weakness in dealings with Pakistan might not go down well with an electorate that has been known to vote rightward.
The issue lies in what exactly was put into the joint statement that was issued after Singh met up with his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, during the Non-Aligned Movement summit in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.
But first, that it was Gilani and not President Asif Ali Zardari who turned up in Egypt was a story in itself. Singh had caused some serious loss of face to Zardari at an informal meeting in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in mid-June. The TV cameras were yet to switch off after the customary photo-op when Singh famously said: "I have come with the limited mandate of telling you that Pakistan must not use its territory for terrorism against India."
It was soon put out by Islamabad that it would be Gilani, and not Zardari, who would go to Sharm el-Sheikh. Unlike Zardari, Gilani is seen to have the backing of the powerful army and the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. The tactic clearly paid off.
Singh winged his way to Sharm el-Sheikh straight from the Group of Eight plus Group of Five meet in L'Aquila, Italy. From his pronouncements, it was evident that he was now in a mood to make amends for snubbing Zardari. What transpired next was a classic in overcorrection.
The joint statement firstly allowed Pakistan to de-link the composite dialogue (stalled after the Mumbai attacks) from terrorism. From Pranab Mukherjee (in his capacity as foreign minister in the last UPA government) to current Home Minister P Chidambaram, everyone had consistently maintained that there could be no dialogue until Pakistan showed real intent to dismantle the terror infrastructure on its home territory. In other words, that it was willing to forego the use of terror as an unstated instrument of state policy.
Secondly, and quite unexpectedly, the issue of Balochi separatism made its first-ever formal appearance in an Indo-Pak diplomatic text. Even if it came in the form of India negating a Pakistani charge of there being some sort of Indian involvement in the goings-on in that restive province, it brought into a play a morally equalizing factor.
Even in the face of an implicit global allegation that India holds Kashmir against its will, India has for decades clung to a sort of moral high ground because Pakistan has used terror against India in pursuit of its objectives in Kashmir. To be equated with this, even if on a much smaller scale, by a putative Indian instigation of the separatist movement in Balochistan, means India forfeits that leverage.
Predictably, Gilani went back pleased as punch with what he had wrested from Manmohan Singh; and the reception he received confirmed that everyone in Pakistan thought it a good deal. By the same token, what is a good deal for Pakistan, as things stand, must logically be a bad deal for India. In this case, it indeed was.
That Singh too managed to get Pakistan to admit Kasab's nationality and also accept the involvement of other Pakistani nationals in the Mumbai blasts in a dossier they handed over in Egypt, was forgotten. Singh was seen to have been too lavish in his generosity, after being so stingy in the run-up to it, and especially so because it came on the eve of the Clinton visit.
That the whole thing was a blunder was admitted on Monday in so many words by Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, in an interaction with members of parliament. Earlier, Singh had sought to hold his own in parliament, steadfastly refusing to admit any undue concessions had been made to Pakistan. But Menon, after plying a vague semantic line that the text actually did not dehyphenate dialogue and terror, in fact the contrary, finally conceded: "You can argue that it was a case of bad drafting".
Menon, almost at the end of his tenure, was among those who personally finalized the Sharm el-Sheikh draft. When members of paliament asked him to account for his lapse, he said something rather unprecedented in diplomacy. "These things happen. What can you do?"
In between, there was the Clinton visit. The former first lady was feted and fussed over like no other secretary of state has been before. There was wall-to-wall coverage, television interviews granted equitably to all three big English channels, photo-ops with village women, dinner at Bukhara (the famed north Indian specialty restaurant), and shopping halts at the upmarket Santushti and eco-chic Dilli Haat malls.
But the public relations did not cut ice with the Indian opposition, or the defense establishment, which went through the fine print and picked up on the fact that India had opened itself up to scrutiny in such a manner that even future third-party contracts with other countries would be affected.
Former foreign minister Yashwant Sinha said in Parliament: "The US will have the right to visit Indian military bases to verify if equipment was sourced even from a third country. The government had succumbed to US pressure."
Strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney said such agreements are designed more "for client states, to ensure America has leverage over them" and not for "strategic partners like India".
In the Upper House of parliament, Foreign Minister SM Krishna hinted that a bit of "bargaining" was justified in the search for access to high-end technology. The opposition did not miss the cue, and mocked him for suggesting that the nation's sovereignty could be the subject matter of a bazaar deal.
A former Fulbright scholar, Krishna, suave but as yet untested in his new job, could only counter the allegation by getting visibly upset over what he called "an outlandish charge'. But by then, the entire opposition had walked away leaving the government to sell the EUMA to itself.
Santwana Bhattacharya is a New Delhi-based journalist who writes on politics, parliament and elections. She is currently working on a book on electoral reforms and the emergence of regional parties in India.