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The devil speaks out

‘I do think we could make President Obama understand, if he does have any such view, then he is barking up the wrong tree,’ writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Feb 07, 2009, 22:07 IST

The truth is I was anyway going to write about my interview with the National Security Advisor (NSA) this week. There are several things he’s said that are worth reflecting upon. Beyond that, he’s also illustrated how awkward issues should be tackled. In India, our instinct is to sweep them under the carpet and hope they’ll be forgotten. The NSA has been more honest. But, alas, I have to begin a little differently.

Was the interview edited or, worse, doctored to make the NSA say what he had not and to give CNN-IBN an under served headline? That is what one of our rival channels claims. The answer, I’m afraid, is a disappointing no. More importantly, Mr Narayanan knows and accepts this and would not for a moment suggest otherwise.

In fact, every single Devil’s Advocate guest can confirm that our interviews are recorded for live and transmitted without editing. It’s one reason why they are willing to accept; they know mischief will not be made with their words.

Now to the original business I had in mind. As far as I can tell, Mr Narayanan is the first Indian official to speak in public about the problem of tackling Pakistan. It’s become a more complicated and, therefore, more difficult country since General Musharraf resigned. “It was possible to do business” with Musharraf, the NSA says, accepting that if he’d continued “we might have had a much better breakthrough.” I think that’s hard to deny. The only issue which the NSA, perhaps understandably, did not touch upon is whether it was India that ducked an opportunity to sort out Kashmir in 2005-2006, when Musharraf was in full control. I can tell you Omar Abdullah believes we did. He says so openly.

But the NSA is also prepared to be equally frank and fulsome about Asif Zardari. He reveals that there is “tremendous warmth” in the relationship between Zardari and our PM and adds it’s “genuine”. He believes Zardari “is really being honest” in that relationship. More importantly, he accepts that ensuring Zardari’s political survival is in India’s interest. As he put it: “We are trying our level best not to add to his problems by doing anything or saying anything.” And the reason is simple — fear that Taliban and other fundamentalist organisations could take over. Observe how focused that fear actually is: “We are very worried on that score... what happens there is going to have a great deal of impact ... it is a matter of extreme, grave concern.”

You don’t need me to point out how different this is to the tired line trotted out by other officials who insist that what happens in Pakistan is Islamabad’s concern and India can’t be involved in securing Zardari or encouraging its nascent democracy. In strategic terms that is, of course, tommy rot. Mr Narayanan had the honesty and courage to be different.
The same refreshing forthrightness underlies what the NSA said about Obama’s thinking, which appears to link the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda with a solution to Kashmir. Obama’s said it often enough for us to accept he means it even if Richard Holbrooke’s mandate does not formally reflect this. Yet, no one in Delhi wants to face up to this fact, at least in public. In private, they’re all wringing their hands.

Well, the NSA has gone on record and without mincing too many words: “References made by President Obama do seem to suggest that there is some kind of a link between the settlement on Pakistan’s western border and the Kashmir issue,” he said, adding with confidence “I do think we could make President Obama understand, if he does have any such view, then he is barking up the wrong tree.”

Now isn’t that a whole lot better than keeping quiet because you’re either too scared to speak out or don’t know how to? A democracy needs to be honest with itself. It must not hide the truth from its own people. Mr Narayanan understands that. Unfortunately, some of our carping politicians and nit-picking bureaucrats don’t agree.

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