Far from the madding crowd

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh left for the US on September 25 hoping for a much needed getaway from the great churning that has been going on at home. There were other reasons why this was no great escape, but that is another story. When he arrived in the US last week there were three important events lined up for Prime Minister Singh. Easily, the most important one was the one with US President Obama, the least talked about given our media obsession with Pakistan was the one with the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the most talked but in the end largely inconsequential was the one with Pak Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Bilateral meet: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh discussed a range of topics with US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House on September 27. PIC/AFP

One does not know whether or not this was because of poor media management by our people or simply because there is a collective disinterest in one of our most important neighbours with whom we share our longest land border. Sheikh Hasina faces one of the most important tests of her political life when her country goes to polls early next year. Having watched how our other neighbour Pakistan slips down the religious radical slope, Hasina has kept her country secular despite trenchant opposition from her arch rival, Khaleda Zia from the pro-Pakistan Bangladesh National Party and her Jamaat-e-Islami friends.

Sheikh Hasina has had the courage and vision to help us secure our security interests and has also been similarly courageous enough when she started the trials of those involved in the atrocities against the Bangladeshis in the country’s war of independence. There is urgent need to implement the Indian Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement and leaving it to the winter session of our Parliament is cutting it to fine. Similarly, our failure to deliver on the Teesta Waters Agreement because of pressure from the West Bengal chief minister was also unfortunate.

Time is now short and the stakes are high for India and one only hopes we have not left this till it is too late. An economically vibrant, nationally secular, politically stable with a friendly government in Bangladesh is in our best national interest.

Prime Minister Singh’s three hour meeting including lunch with US President Obama at the White House on September 27 was significant in the number of agreements this brought about. The White House fact sheet at the conclusion of the meeting referred to India and the US as global and strategic partners.

Obviously there will be glitches, delays and some agreements may even run into rough weather but the important point is that this has been done and that US President Obama, preoccupied with his own domestic problems was not treating Prime Minister Singh as one whose time was over.

It is always difficult for a smaller power to be an equal partner with a much stronger power and it will require considerable skill and patience on both sides to make this an enduring arrangement. It will also need India to show more courage, flexibility and self-confidence in dealing with a superpower that has never sacrificed its national interests or its primacy. International equations have been changing in the past few years and will change faster in the next few years. As China’s footprint increases globally, India would need more friends without losing old friends.

Prime Minister Singh’s statement at the UNGA when he said that Pakistan remained the epicentre of terrorism was made ahead of his meeting with Nawaz Sharif as also his earlier comment that he did not expect any major breakthrough at the forthcoming meeting. Possibly, Nawaz had different hopes.

India-Pakistan high level meetings are like South Asian weddings. There simply has to be a tamasha before the actual event is solemnised. This happened this time too, although the awkward Hamid Mir voluntary disclosure and then the usual delayed retraction did not provoke Prime Minister Singh from cancelling the meeting. In the end it was an uneventful, insipid meeting and merely decided on some procedural matters that did not need prime ministers to meet. 

There was no joint statement and no joint press conference. There was nothing much to tell the press. That was indeed the message — that unless Pakistan addresses India’s security concerns on terrorism and security, high level talks are meaningless. Pakistan can no longer continue to create terror into India across the LOC, shelter terrorists, retain terror camps and infrastructure and then expect India to come to the discussion table as if nothing has happened. 

The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)

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