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All the PM’s horses

Now why do I think our prime minister has adopted the Humpty Dumpty position? Karan Thapar elaborates.

india Updated: Jul 25, 2009 23:18 IST

I’m afraid Humpty Dumpty wasn’t correct. Nor, I would suggest, is the prime minister. Words may have different meanings but you can usually determine what is intended by the context. And that’s also true of most malapropisms. But let’s stick to Lewis Caroll’s philosophy and leave Sheridan’s wit for another day.

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’”

Now why do I think our prime minister has adopted the Humpty Dumpty position? Well, consider the following paragraph from the India-Pakistan joint statement on July 16: “Both prime ministers recognised that dialogue is the only way forward.

Action on terrorism should not be linked to the Composite Dialogue Process and these should not be bracketed. Prime Minister Singh said that India was ready to discuss all issues with Pakistan, including all outstanding issues.”

What does that critical middle sentence mean? At its simplest, that action on terror and the composite dialogue should be seen as separate processes not dependent on each other. But does it then follow that even if there is no action on terror, the composite dialogue can (or should) carry on? That’s the Pakistani interpretation. Or that lack of advance on any of the subjects that are part of the composite dialogue must not be used to hold up action on terror? That’s the Indian view.

The ambiguous wording of the sentence permits both interpretations. And perhaps this is why both PMs accepted it. But the sentence also has a context. Seen in that broader light its meaning becomes a lot clearer.

Read the paragraph again concentrating this time on the first and last sentences. Now, if “dialogue is the only way forward” doesn’t de-linking action on terror from the composite dialogue process mean that lack of action on terror will not hold up that process? Otherwise “the only way forward” will be blocked. And surely the object is to move forward, not stand still or regress?

The final sentence of the paragraph takes this interpretation a step further. If India is “ready to discuss all issues with Pakistan”, then de-linking action on terror from the composite dialogue process means that lack of action on terror will not stop India from discussing “all issues”. And whether you like it or not, “all issues” includes Kashmir.

Quite frankly, this was not India’s position before July 16. Earlier we maintained that dialogue with Pakistan was not possible until the 26/11 accused were brought to justice and the infrastructure of terror dismantled. Indeed, did not the foreign secretary repeatedly claim the meeting with Zardari at Yekaterinburg was “talk” not “dialogue”? But hereafter if the foreign secretaries are to meet “as often as necessary”, can we still claim it’s only talk and not a dialogue? Seen in its full context, the Sharm el-Sheikh statement would suggest not.

Of course the PM does not agree. Instead, he’s told the Rajya Sabha the paragraph “does not mean any reduction of our stand. It only strengthens our stand.”

Now, if you’re wondering how that can be, go back to Humpty Dumpty for the answer. When Alice asked him whether its possible to “make words mean so many different things”, he replied, “The question is which is to be master. That’s all.” I guess the PM’s decided he’s the master after all.

The views expressed by the author are personal