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Out of his head: Manmohan Singh

Last year, soon after the ill-fated India-Pakistan joint statement in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, had been reduced to a Baloch kebab, an exasperated Congress President Sonia Gandhi asked the prime minister whom exactly he hoped to parley with in Pakistan. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri reports.

india Updated: Feb 14, 2010 00:35 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Last year, soon after the ill-fated India-Pakistan joint statement in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, had been reduced to a Baloch kebab, an exasperated Congress President Sonia Gandhi asked the prime minister whom exactly he hoped to parley with in Pakistan.

Manmohan Singh had said that Pervez Musharraf was a man India could do business with. But he was gone. Benazir Bhutto had emerged as the Lady in White. She was dead. Everyone knew Asif Ali Zardari had privately told Singh that he was powerless.

Sonia Gandhi was asking what many others in New Delhi, including most in the ruling Congress Party, are asking once again: why is Manmohan Singh so determined to plant an olive branch in a sterile soil?

Singh’s response over the years has been the same: Because I must.

Those who interact with him say his stubbornness arises from a belief that three things stand in India’s way to Big Power status: energy, education and Pakistan. “Right from the start he said I don’t want to be a run of the mill, ordinary ruler,” says a commentator remembering a conversation with Singh. “He wanted to be a game-changer.”

Peace with Pakistan was a necessity on at least two levels. One was that it would liberate India from a Tier 2 Nation status. “It bothered him that India was defined internationally by a territorial dispute with Pakistan in a way that it was not, say, with China,” says a source.

Another arose from the economist in Manmohan Singh. “He believes that for at least five or six years, India needs a stable neighbourhood for its own economic development,” says a former advisor. This would set India’s prosperity in stone.

His party is generally skeptical of Manmohan Singh’s blue sky thoughts. So was his first Pakistani interlocutor. Pervez Musharraf didn’t hide the fact that he wished Atal Bihari Vajpayee had been re-elected. But the fallout of 9/11 and all that forced Pakistan’s president-general to realise his country’s hostility to India was imposing an unacceptable price on Pakistan. He also came to trust Singh “because I see sincerity in him”.

Play, pause, play

The three years after 2004, both Indian and Pakistani officials concede, were a diplomatic high point in the two rivals’ history. Singh describes them as “the most fruitful and productive discussions ever” with Pakistan. Much of this bloomed in the back channel set up after the July 2001 Agra summit wreck. As Musharraf later said, though there was “no official exchange of documents” by 2007 the two sides came up with a Sir Creek agreement, a Siachen blueprint and the principles of a Kashmir settlement. But before the drafting could commence, the general fell to a Lawyers’ Revolt at home.

This experience of great accomplishment on little expectation, strengthened Singh’s resolve that dialogue

with Pakistan was a gamble always worth taking. Mumbai forced a pause. His first attempt to set the ball rolling, Sharm el-Sheikh, fell into an abyss. The pause button was pressed again.

Singh had to wait before inducting into his office Shivshankar Menon, the ex-foreign secretary who combined the prime minister’s vision of Pakistan with a wealth of diplomatic experience.

Menon's becoming National Security Advisor was the last piece needed to complete Singh's peace puzzle. Two weeks before India publicly invited Pakistan for an official chat, Singh received an okay from a reluctant cabinet and party. He warned senior BJP leaders of his intentions. They said, ‘Why now?’ Singh broadly said what he always did: Because I must.

New Delhi mandarins cite sound diplomatic reasons why talks had to begin again. The world was no longer listening to India’s demand that Pakistan had to do more to bring the 26/11 perpetrators to justice. “The tables were turned. Pakistan was scoring points by saying India wasn’t talking,” said an official. “A no dialogue stance was cutting no ice.” Worse, India’s blanket ban was being used by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to suffocate the Islamabad peace party.

Singh obviously has higher hopes. “Resumption of dialogue is just a step. The prime minister’s vision will always be there in the background,” said a source. Officials dismiss anyone forecasting whether that goal will be achieved as astrologers not diplomats. Ditto for predicting whether terrorists will strike again.

Singh knows dialogues are often interrupted by gunfire. The progress India and Pakistan achieve, he once noted, “has been repeatedly thwarted by acts of terrorism”.

So who does he talk to?

Prediction is all the more difficult because Pakistan’s political landscape is wholly different from what it was when Musharraf held sway. President Zardari’s authority is rapidly leaking away. “He’ll survive, but he’ll be a figurehead,” said a senior US diplomat.

India is confident it will be talking to the mufti and khaki halves of the Pakistani establishment. The ISI chief and foreign minister both attended the high-level Wednesday meeting which agreed to give a green signal to India’s offer for foreign secretary-level talks now scheduled for February 25 in Delhi.

As for political risk, Singh cites the example of his predecessor. After Agra, after the attack on Parliament, he still went to Islamabad. “Vajpayee was not deterred, as a statesman should not be,” he told the Lok Sabha last year.

Singh seems to have concluded there are few electoral downsides if one makes a go at dialogue. The potential benefits, however, are so enormous it would be foolish not to give peace a chance. “There comes a time in the history of a people when they are energised enough to make history,” he once said.

His people may still be in two minds on that. But Manmohan Singh is not.