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Krishna hurls talkative chakra at Pillai
- Foreign minister delivers slap over TV, terms talks-eve remarks ‘very unfortunate’
SM Krishna (top), GK Pillai

New Delhi, July 21: Home secretary G.K. Pillai today woke up to his A.P. Venkateswaran nightmare.

Foreign minister S.M. Krishna publicly questioned more than once during the day the timing of Pillai’s remarks on the eve of talks with Pakistan last week.

The timing of Pillai’s remarks on the role of the ISI in the Mumbai attacks was “very unfortunate”, the usually soft-spoken Krishna said.

The minister told PTI in an interview that if he were the home secretary, he would not have spoken about the revelations by Pakistani-American David Headley, based on which Pillai said the ISI had played a “much more significant role” in the Mumbai attacks. Pillai had spoken out a day before Krishna met Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in Islamabad. Qureshi had pounced on Pillai’s remarks to play to the gallery in Pakistan and taunt the Indian foreign policy establishment.

If Pillai thought it was a slip of the tongue on Krishna’s part today, the foreign minister chose to remove such doubts by moving from the news agency to television channels.

“Well, in hindsight I think Mr Pillai could have waited till I came back to issue a statement. Perhaps, it would have been wiser if that statement had not been made just on the eve of my visit,” Krishna told CNN-IBN.

“When two foreign ministers are meeting after the Mumbai attacks, there was a special significance to the meeting. There was a special connotation for that meeting. Everyone who is privy to whatever was happening in the Government of India ought to have known the right kind of atmosphere from India’s side should have been created for the talks to go in a normal manner but unfortunately this episode happened,” Krishna said.

Krishna also appeared on NDTV, again questioning the timing of Pillai’s remarks.

The public reprimand was a slap in the face of Pillai, especially since it came from the head of another ministry. Spellbound bureaucrats later recalled the unparalleled snub to then foreign secretary Venkateswaran in 1987 when Rajiv Gandhi deadpanned during a media conference: “Soon you will be talking to a new foreign secretary.” Venkateswaran — the issue then was also differences over the Pakistan policy — had little option but to resign.

Krishna’s whiplash comments, which could not have come without the approval of the Prime Minister, have made Pillai’s continuation untenable. Pillai attended office today but has withdrawn into a shell over the past two days.

But the current controversy goes far deeper than one individual. Many feel that Krishna’s comments reflect the resentment of the foreign policy establishment towards a perceived territorial encroachment by the home ministry, headed by P. Chidambaram. The foreign policymakers — and the US — feel that the home ministry should not have leaked the revelations made by Headley.

By coincidence or not, Chidambaram got into another tricky situation today by seeming to suggest that the response to Monday’s train tragedy in Bengal could have been faster. “I was informed that the first relief team could leave only about 2 hours and 30 minutes after the accident happened. The second team could only leave seven hours after the accident and they had to drive for about 220km, which means there is a clear gap in the mobility of the disaster team,” he told a meeting organised by the National Disaster Management Authority.

The observation was seen as criticism of the railways, whose minister Mamata Banerjee and Chidambaram differ over issues such as how to fight Maoists.

Realising the potential for trouble, Chidambaram’s office later clarified that his remarks were not a criticism of the railway ministry. The statement said one of the television channels was “mischievously” reporting the home minister’s statement.

Chidambaram at the disaster management meeting. (PTI)

The confusion could not have come at a more inopportune time for the home ministry. As reported by The Telegraph on Wednesday, an indirect gag had been imposed on the ministry only yesterday. An additional secretary has been tasked to deal with the media, prompting the usually forthcoming Pillai to direct questions to the official.

After the public relations disaster in Islamabad, sources in South Block had complained that the home secretary’s comments were ill-timed. The sources added that the US had been upset about Indian officials making public the interrogation details of Headley. It was a complaint that the external affairs ministry, itself upset at the MHA stepping on its turf, had relayed to the PMO.

Some sources suggested that the US, keen to start withdrawing from Afghanistan by July 2011 and wanting Pakistan to commit more of its forces to fight the Taliban, might have had something to do with the day’s developments. Both Krishna and Qureshi had separate bilateral meetings with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton on the sidelines of the Kabul conference yesterday. The US envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, met the Prime Minister in New Delhi today.

But others pointed out that the foreign policy establishment was miffed enough to act on its own and did not need any prod from the US. They pointed out that Krishna had kept silent when Qureshi, sitting beside him in Islamabad, had said Pillai’s remarks were “uncalled for” and claimed the Indian minister had agreed with him. Later — as well as today — Krishna objected to Qureshi drawing a parallel between Pillai and Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed.

This isn’t the first time the two ministries have fallen out. The external affairs ministry has been upset with Pillai ever since the first foreign secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan after 26/11 took place in New Delhi on February 25.

During those talks, foreign secretary Nirupama Rao handed her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir three dossiers containing the names of terrorists and criminals involved in anti-India activities or wanted by India. While the foreign ministry remained tightlipped, officials in the home ministry made the names public.

The differences in perceptions were on display today, too. “What Mr Krishna said today is a big mistake, and brings down the morale of a highly motivated home ministry,” said a home ministry official. “It is under Chidambaram and Pillai that terror strikes have been brought to near-zero and this ministry was never as decisive as now,” he added.

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