With defence minister AK Antony under siege in Parliament for attributing the killing of five soldiers in Kashmir to terrorists at a time his army colleagues were blaming the Pakistan military, the Congress on Wednesday acknowledged that the government appeared to have made an “error of judgement”.
Antony’s statement — which sources said had been vetted by the prime minister’s office (PMO) — had set off a storm in the House with Opposition leaders accusing him of giving Pakistan an escape route.
“There is an error of judgement on the part of the government. It happens sometimes... now we will see how it can be rectified,” said a senior Congress functionary, who asked not to be named.
Swinging into damage control mode, party spokesperson PC Chacko said the Pakistan army’s role in the attack “could not be denied” but added that Antony’s statement was based on information available with him at that point in time.
The minister is now due to make a fresh statement on Thursday incorporating inputs from army chief General Bikram Singh, who is visiting Poonch, the site of the ambush.
A high-ranking UPA source suggested that the government may have been driven by a desire to salvage the peace dialogue with Pakistan. “Some people don’t want the likely meeting between the PM and Nawaz Sharif in September to be jeopardised,” he said.
Late in the night, the PMO denied that the statement had been changed at its behest.
But clearly, the situation could have been better handled. Before Antony spoke, the army leaked the contents of its press release, blaming the Pakistani armed forces.
It circulated the release, unchanged, after Antony’s statement in the House, and took three hours to replace it with another, more in line with the defence minister’s views.
The current embarrassment is reminiscent of the red faces on the Indian side after the Sharm-el-Shaikh summit joint statement in 2009 that sought to delink the dialogue with Pakistan from terror just months after the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai. That document also allowed the Pakistanis to draw a parallel between Indian “involvement” in Baluchistan and theirs in Kashmir.
External affairs minister Salman Khurshid put up a stout defence of his colleague. “Where is the question of apology? Don’t make a controversy that makes us look before Pakistan as a house bickering among itself. BJP leaders should speak in the same voice…I’m saying categorically that there could not have been a better statement made by Antony yesterday,” he said.
Chacko said it was wrong to say the defence minister had given a clean chit to the Pakistan army. “Any attempt to twist, misinterpret or politicise the issue will be unfortunate. There is no denying the role of the Pakistani army,” he said. “(Peace) talks should continue. When the BJP government was in power, did they not talk to Pakistan as in Agra and Lahore? Talks shouldn’t break, talks, not war is a solution.”
The party also hit out against the BJP, with general secretary Ajay Maken claiming more security personnel were killed during the NDA regime. “The BJP talking about killing of soldiers... should also remember the muted response and killing of 16 BSF soldiers at Bangladesh border in April 2001,” Maken said on Twitter.
BJP leader Yashwant Sinha has moved a privilege notice against Antony for “misleading” the house. Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar announced that she has received the notice and would take appropriate action.