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FOOT IN THE MOUTH
- South Block’s bumbling may still cost India in the talks with Pakistan

Of all the public pronouncements by the Indian leadership since the Islamabad summit last month, the most profound, the most ominous and the most far-reaching ones so far have come from the deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani.

Within 10 days of the meeting between the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and General Pervez Musharraf, the deputy prime minister told state chief secretaries and directors general of police from all over the country that “vigil must be continued” and warned against lowering their guard, notwithstanding what he called a “historic” and a “major breakthrough” in Islamabad.

Those opinion-makers and strategic analysts in India who naïvely believe that the only requirement for friendship between New Delhi and Islamabad is an inexhaustible reserve of goodwill from India towards its western neighbour, were fortunately too heady from the bonhomie in Islamabad to attribute motives to Advani. He did remind law enforcement officials across the length and breadth of the country that proof of what was agreed in Islamabad lay in the proverbial pudding and could only be certified in the months and years to come.

The first signals that anything has changed, if at all, will come when India and Pakistan enter the next phase of their engagement on Monday. Because any signs of such change will enable Advani and officials, who head the various agencies which report to him, to begin any reassessment of the way they defend India and its values. The three-day meeting in Islamabad next week is more important than is acknowledged.

The history of meetings between foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan is a mixed bag.

History teaches us that it is safer to underestimate Pakistan’s leaders — civilian or military — than to underestimate the heads of that country’s diplomatic service. It would be an understatement to say that Pakistan’s foreign secretaries have often got the better of their Indian counterparts.

One wily foreign secretary from across the border committed his Indian counterpart to an agreement on Siachen not long ago, an agreement which would have been an insult to the sacrifices made by jawans who guarded the glacier for India with their lives, and routinely with their limbs, in the frosty heights.

That agreement on Siachen, which was to have been made public the following day in New Delhi, was nullified after midnight by political pressure exerted at the very top of the Indian leadership, although the then prime minister and the foreign secretary had earlier agreed to the settlement.

On another occasion, chaos reigned in the Indian delegation led by the foreign secretary for a meeting in Islamabad. True, the foreign secretary was under pressure from a prime minister in New Delhi, whose idea of good neighbourliness in external affairs was to surrender to the countries he was negotiating with everything just short of India’s sovereignty.

But even that could not justify creating a situation which made it possible for the Pakistanis to run circles around the head of the Indian delegation. The brief carried by the foreign secretary was to keep the talks from collapsing at any cost. The Pakistanis were wise to it and so India’s negotiating position fell apart quickly. The foreign secretary, who blamed the joint secretary in charge of Pakistan for authorizing and advising that position then kept the joint secretary out of the talks and replaced him with a counsellor from the high commission in Islamabad. All to the delight of the Pakistanis.

There are no fears that the first phase of the three-day talks in Islamabad next week will put India at any disadvantage. In that first phase, the Indian side will be led by South Block’s joint secretary in charge of Pakistan: he has dealt with the ups and downs in Indo-Pakistan relations almost from the very start of his career in the Indian foreign service. Many years ago, as a junior official, Arun Singh held the fort in the division dealing with Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan because his boss invariably preferred the challenges at the Delhi Golf Club to the diplomatic challenge of dealing with India’s sensitive neighbourhood.

Regrettably, it is not possible to be equally sanguine about the second phase of next week’s meetings in Islamabad when the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries will have their one-day talks. In the run up to last month’s Islamabad summit and during the summit, Shashank, the recently appointed Indian foreign secretary, put his foot into his mouth often enough for the political leadership in New Delhi to lose some sleep over how he might handle the Pakistanis.

Because of Vajpayee’s stellar performance in Islamabad, because the external affairs minister, Yashwant Sinha, endeared himself to everyone during the summit, Shashank’s foot-in-mouth exercises did not cause any harm. But unless the joint secretary can tie up the substantive part of next week’s agenda in Islamabad during the first two days of talks, there is the risk that things may turn out to be different this time.

During last month’s summit, Pakistan’s foreign secretary, Riaz Khokar, was marginalized. This columnist has been told by unimpeachable Pakistani sources that the first time Khokar saw the Indo-Pakistan joint press statement issued on January 6 was minutes before it was released in Islamabad. Khokar, who has made mincemeat of at least one of Shashank’s predecessors, may be subdued this time because Pakistan has its back to the wall on the issue of Abdul Qadeer Khan’s nuclear black market, but he is only biding his time.

Pakistan was upset over India’s insistence that the bilateral talks next week should start at the level of joint secretaries: what the Pakistanis probably did not realize was that India’s insistence did not reflect any desire to downgrade the talks. India merely wanted the substantive business in Islamabad to be conducted by the joint secretary and not by the foreign secretary.

For the same reason, India is prematurely pulling out its ambassador in Kathmandu and bringing him to South Block. The government is also not insisting that a secretary in the ministry of external affairs, who was to go as ambassador to Belgium and the European Union, should leave for Brussels.

Such arrangements have been attempted before. South Block faced a similar deficit of intellectual leadership when Chokila Iyer was made foreign secretary. It was attempted to solve the problem by asking K.V. Rajan, a retiring secretary, to stay on as adviser in the external affairs minister’s office.

But patchworks like that are inherently alien to the nature of bureaucracy. They seldom work and it is unfortunate that the government has to attempt these once again at a time when New Delhi’s relations with several key countries, including Pakistan and the United States of America, are at the crossroads. South Block’s tragedy becomes a farce when a foreign secretary, who is in deficit, is petty enough to cancel a junior official’s posting to Washington — official reasons vary — merely because she has worked with his predecessor. Notwithstanding facts on the file which show that during President Bill Clinton’s visit to India in 2000, this official was considered knowledgeable enough on the US for her to be summoned from Paris to handle the visit.

Besides, the Indian embassy in Washington now has no woman diplomat and she would have filled that gap. History repeats itself, goes the cliché. It certainly does in South Block. The foreign secretary whose team fell apart in Islamabad during talks with the Pakistanis also harassed an officer far junior to him merely because he had done an upright job on deputation to the prime minister’s office — which unfortunately meant the foreign secretary sometimes had a rough time.

He would not give the junior officer a posting when he returned to South Block. Nor would he give that officer leave to visit his father abroad.

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