Washington, June 12: Pinned down by the flak in India created by his promise to the Americans to review India’s policy on Iraq, external affairs minister Natwar Singh spoke to CPM general secretary “Comrade” Harkishen Singh Surjeet on telephone from Washington, and shortly thereafter clarified that there was no question of sending Indian troops to Iraq.
“The question of sending Indian troops to Iraq does not arise,” he told Indian reporters here at a news conference hastily rescheduled so that the Sunday editions of Indian newspapers could catch his clarification.
Singh seemed surprised by the controversy which his remarks had created and told reporters: “I have spoken to Comrade Surjeet and sent him the text of what I said.”
But the problem for the Manmohan Singh government is that the minister’s clarification may not bring the controversy to an end.
The Americans have seized on what they see as an unexpected opening on an issue vital to the very survival of the Bush administration, but had appeared closed with the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government’s decision not to send troops to Iraq.
After Singh’s statement here on Thursday sending out a glimmer of hope that Indian troops may, after all, head for Iraq, Robert Blackwill, President George W. Bush’s adviser on Iraq in the National Security Council, quickly sought a meeting with the external affairs minister.
This morning, Blackwill, armed with detailed reports and charts, went to the hotel where the minister is staying and had a working breakfast with him. At that meeting, Blackwill liberally used his charm on Singh, whom he has known very well during the years that the Bush confidant was US ambassador in New Delhi.
It was a moment of extreme embarrassment for Indian officials here and those from South Block accompanying the minister, all of whom have been indicating to the Americans for several months now that the issue of Indian troops in Iraq was as good as closed.
At his news conference, which was dominated by Iraq, Singh attempted to give a spin to his Thursday statement in the hope that it would help him get out of the hot water he is in with parties in the ruling alliance which have strong views on Iraq.
He said his Thursday statement was about the recently passed UN Security Council resolution on Iraq and not about sending Indian troops there.
“The UN resolution is a complicated and delicate issue. What I said was about that resolution. I was an opponent of sending Indian troops to Iraq and I had a role in drafting the unanimous resolution in Parliament on Iraq.”
He said the “government’s position on this issue is based on national consensus, reflected in our parliamentary resolution” and assured partners in the ruling coalition that “all decisions will be taken by the government in close consultation with all United Progressive Alliance (UPA) members...We will keep the developments in Iraq under close review”.
India, he said, welcomed the adoption of the UN Security Council resolution “as a first step to restoring sovereignty to the Iraqi people, leading to stability and reconstruction” and promised aid to the people of Iraq.
Singh was also peppered with questions about the uncharitable things he had said or written about Bush, his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and about US policies and asked how he hoped to work with the Bush administration with such a record.
Singh defended his record by saying that as a member of the opposition, it was his duty to make critical remarks about the then government’s policies, including its policy towards Washington. “But it is my duty now as external affairs minister to broaden and deepen relations with the US. What is said in opposition and in government is a political reality everywhere in the world.”
He regretted that his “important” visit to Washington had been overshadowed by Iraq. Singh said his meeting with secretary of state Colin Powell “covered a wide range of issues, both bilateral and global...We agreed that we share a common interest and vision and that we will not let our differences overshadow the important areas of agreement.”
Although Singh’s visit has been controversial, the Americans are not allowing it come in the way of their all-round effort to foster ties with India, irrespective of which government is in power.
Yesterday, at the funeral service for Ronald Reagan, the Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and his wife walked up to Singh and engaged him in conversation after aides pointed out the minister to Kerry among the mourners.