On his return from Egypt in the early hours of July 17, a day after meeting his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Gilani, Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh received a low-profile but important visitor. It was Ahmed Patel, political secretary to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. Patel came calling even as storm clouds were darkening Delhi’s skyline.
By the time Singh’s aircraft touched down, the morning papers had begun to shrill a growing sense of shock and disbelief at the PM’s delinking of terrorism from the composite dialogue with Pakistan, as well as the shock insertion of Balochistan into India
-Pak bilaterals. The big question was: Why had the PM done the unthinkable?
Patel possibly briefed Singh about the reaction generated by the India-Pakistan joint statement inked in Sharm el-Sheikh. He would certainly have noted Singh’s take on developments. Even as the Congress leadership treaded gingerly over the political thin ice in the next few days, Singh reached Parliament where he responded to the Opposition’s belligerence by baldly reiterating the delinking of terror from talks. Both Houses heard him out but it was a deceptive calm.
After the July 18-19 weekend — during which Sonia met Singh — curiosity grew about whether or not Congress would now endorse the Singh-Gilani statement. Congress pointedly refused to do so, arguing it was for the government to offer explanations. The pot really began to boil because the commentariat had already slammed the PM for being either too naive or simply letting his guard slip.
The Singh-Sonia power equation has worn well since Congress’s shock win in 2004. During the release of the 2009 manifesto, she firmly quelled speculation over Rahul Gandhi being a prime ministerial hopeful. And when she welcomed Singh to her home, 10 Janpath, on May 16, after the poll results showed a big Congress win, it was as a proud guardian would greet a bright ward.
Singh has never lost sight of that essential dynamic. He knows that it is Sonia who powers the party and government. His success in delivering on welfare schemes, driven by Sonia’s aam aadmi convictions, was seen to have helped Congress retain power. It cemented his position as Mr Reliable. The events at Sharm el-Sheikh are the first bump on the smooth path trod by these partners.
Just what was it that Singh tried in his talks with Gilani? Did he fail to anticipate a disjunct with his party on the issue? Those with access to Singh point to parallels with the saffron storm over BJP veteran L K Advani’s “Jinnah-was-secular” remark. The Congress faithful, outraged that 26/11 is being “forgotten”, led the revolt just as Advani was set upon by his own partymen. Efforts to break the mould are often seen as heretical.
The trouble began, sources admitted, with the Pakistani press at Sharm el-Sheikh swiftly telegraphing the de-bracketing of terror and inclusion of Balochistan as major victories for Gilani. The initial mood was set, only to gather momentum and result in a media frenzy that ended up obscuring the true nature of the initiative.
The philosophical choice that Singh presented: Could India and Pakistan break away from their hawkish stance? Could India shed its sense of victimhood, genuinely de-hyphenating itself from Pakistan? When the big powers were prepared to look at India in its own right, where was the profit in bringing up Pakistan at every turn? Singh also told the Lok Sabha on July 29 that in the absence of the option of war, dialogue was the only way out. His vision of a “shared future and common prosperity” is anchored in the belief that it is time to break out of mutually hostile silos.
It all sounded fine as a doctrine. But it left the Prime Minister’s party cold mainly because the Sharm el-Sheikh joint statement was seen to leave India’s flanks exposed. Doubts lingered over Gilani’s views. Did the Pakistan prime minister fully share Singh’s genuine desire for peace? Or was he merely looking to ease ties with India because of Pakistan’s reluctant offensive against the Taliban?
Congress leaders are unreconciled to the Balochistan reference even though the official camp argued this gave India as much leeway to comment on the Pakistani province as it did to Islamabad to rake up the “Indian hand”. Party sceptics feel this gave BJP the upper hand and needlessly embarrassed India’s security establishment. Like the “Pakistan-is-a-victim-of-terror” formulation, Balochistan is seen falsely to equate Islamabad’s jihad policy in Kashmir with India’s alleged interference.
As his subsequent clarification showed, when he virtually ruled out the quick resumption of talks, the PM has understood his moves might have been mistimed or at least poorly communicated. And Sonia’s backing, this time round, has been carefully conditional. In saying Pakistan has to deliver on its pledges, she has drawn a clear red line — out-of-the-box thinking on Pakistan was a fraught project.
As Congressmen mulled over a confusing week, the big question remained. And it was not about whether Singh overstepped his brief. But did he forget his basic instincts as Congressman and member of Sonia’s party?