|Manmohan Singh and his delegation at the India Desk at the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday. Picture by Jay Mandal/On Assignment
New York, Sept. 28: Unmindful of the raging political storm back home over the so far stillborn ordinance on the conviction of legislators, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears to be racing to build his legacy in the remaining months as head of government before the Lok Sabha elections.
Like his bombshell criticism of Pakistan yesterday in the presence of US President Barack Obama, Singh today departed from his own practice and that of his multiple predecessors in the UN General Assembly by making a specific reference to the Simla Agreement in settling the Kashmir problem.
“India is committed sincerely to resolving all issues with Pakistan, including the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, through bilateral dialogue on the basis of the Simla Agreement,” he told the annual General Assembly here today.
The Simla Agreement implies conversion of the Line of Control (LoC) into a permanent border, an assurance that Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had verbally given to Indira Gandhi in July 1972.
That assurance, which triggered never-ending speculation about secret clauses worked at the Simla summit, appears to be what the Prime Minister hopes to realise by engaging his new Pakistani counterpart during Singh’s remaining months in office.
The Prime Minister has often spoken at international gatherings about settling problems with Pakistan through bilateral dialogue. But he has not made a specific reference in the General Assembly to the Simla Agreement in any recent address.
In 2011, the last time Singh spoke in the General Assembly, he did not mention Pakistan at all. Last year, the Prime Minister did not visit New York but deputed then external affairs minister S.M. Krishna, a known hardliner on Pakistan, to represent him at the annual UN gathering.
While acknowledging that “we have embarked on a resumed dialogue process with Pakistan”, Krishna made it clear that there was nothing to discuss with Islamabad on Kashmir. “The people of Jammu and Kashmir have chosen and reaffirmed their destiny repeatedly through India’s well-established democratic processes. We wish to make it abundantly clear that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India.”
|Manmohan Singh speaks at the UN General Assembly in New York on Saturday. Picture by Jay Mandal/On Assignment
In 2010, Krishna who stood in for the Prime Minister said the only issue to be discussed with Islamabad was cross-border terrorism. He firmly demanded that “Pakistan must fulfil its solemn commitment of not allowing territory under its control to be used for terrorism directed against India”.
Singh did not attend the General Assembly in the previous year, either. But Krishna made no reference to Simla in 2009. The only remark he made about Pakistan was that “India is committed to establishing good neighbourly relations and resolving all outstanding issues with Pakistan through peaceful dialogue”. In his address he referred to the terrorist outrage in Mumbai in November 2008, but did not name Pakistan in that context.
In a seeming contradiction, the Prime Minister declared in today’s General Assembly speech that “there must be a clear understanding of the fact Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India and that there can never, ever, be a compromise with the unity and territorial integrity of India”.
Similarly, while answering a Lok Sabha question from Jai Prakash Agarwal on August 7, the minister of state for external affairs, Preneet Kaur, had said: “Government’s position is that the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of the Indian Union and that a part of the territory of the state is under the forcible and illegal occupation of Pakistan. Government will continue to take all necessary steps to protect India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
The answer did not get much attention in India, but would have certainly been taken note of in Islamabad. But these appear to be negotiating positions rather than any irrevocable statement of intent on the UPA government’s part in the context of Singh’s unambiguous desire to have a settlement with Pakistan during his tenure as head of government.
If a settlement on converting the LoC into a permanent border on the lines of Bhutto’s 1972 assurance is to be pursued with Nawaz Sharif, it is essential for India to demand much more so that negotiations can move to a compromise and climbdown by both sides.
No one is expecting that there will be any breakthrough at the meeting with Sharif here tomorrow on the LoC becoming a permanent border. Singh himself has lowered expectations from the New York meeting.
But he is aware that Sharif’s election as Prime Minister represents a new chance to push for resolving outstanding issues with Pakistan. Singh is also aware that at one point during Pervez Musharraf’s presidency, a chance to solve the Kashmir issue by converting the LoC into a permanent border had presented itself.
But that opportunity was frittered away by dithering in New Delhi and by the time realisation dawned on the UPA government that this was a short-lived chance, Musharraf had begun losing his absolute grip on power.
Obviously, the Prime Minister believes that Sharif’s honeymoon in office will not last forever. The chance to implement assurances given in Simla four decades ago is one that may not come again if it is not grabbed now.
India knows that Sharif has the capacity to take bold decisions. He tested his country’s nuclear weapon but he also facilitated Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s historic bus journey to Lahore.
Similarly, during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s time as head of government, it was Sharif who pulled the plug on Pakistan-inspired separatism in Punjab. Without that action by Sharif, the Khalistani revolt might have lasted a lot longer.
At the UN, Singh today repeated his charge that “the epicentre of terrorism in our region is located in our neighbourhood in Pakistan”. But that also may be linked to creating an appearance that he will be uncompromising in his talks with Sharif even as avenues are explored for a solution during the remaining months of UPA rule in the present Lok Sabha.