The tirade against the ex-foreign secretary is uncalled for
By Arundhati Ghose,
former Indian ambassador to the United Nations, Geneva
One of the fashionable phrases currently in use to address the complexities of international relations is ‘thinking out of the box’; few, though, appear to be ready to accept ‘acting out of the box’. Reactions to change tend to be sharp; even for this commentator, the joint statement issued at Sharm el-Sheikh initially came as a jolt. However, a closer perusal of the document, its careful drafting, and later, the statement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Parliament, clarified much of the text and the context. It was clear that much was left unsaid, as is normal in sensitive international negotiations, leaving it to critics and analysts to speculate on the basis of their particular political bent.
The ‘controversy’, unfortunately, degenerated into personal attacks, on occasion amounting to charges of treasonous or extraordinarily stupid behaviour, simple-mindedness or sheer incompetence on the part of those in charge of our foreign policy—from the PM to external affairs minister S.M. Krishna to foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon, who retired last month. While one has little knowledge of the capabilities of the new foreign minister, one can hardly classify the other two ‘accused’ as either ‘treasonous’ or ‘stupid’. Manmohan and Menon have proved themselves persons of outstanding intelligence and determination, and as possessed of an unerring sense of the shifting nuances of international relations, which has stood the country in good stead in parlous times—especially in our troubled neighbourhood.
The prime minister is a political being and has a forum to defend himself. Menon, on the other hand, was bound by the discipline of his office, and even when egregious interpretations were made of the most innocuous of statements, clarifications could only be given in private. What is it that has raised the hackles of those opposed not only to the statement, but also to the government? Umbrage has been taken to his reported statement that “while the drafting (of the joint statement) could be criticised, the substance could not”. Is that an admission of bad drafting?
Of the two issues in the joint statement that have drawn the most attention, the inclusion of a reference to Balochistan has perhaps left the critics frothing at the mouth. Why, the criticism goes, did Menon not speak out and advise Manmohan that such a reference would not be acceptable to domestic public opinion? Or would jeopardise any future negotiations with Pakistan? Or that India should not be seen to be ‘conceding’ anything to Pakistan? After all, it is said, past foreign secretaries have made their reputations in ‘speaking out’ against the follies of the political leadership.
Firstly, this commentator is not aware that Menon did not raise some or all of these objections with his political masters. Many of us, formerly of the Indian Foreign Service, are aware of his calibre and can therefore surmise there must have been a valid reason for the inclusion of the Pakistani PM’s concern in the joint statement. Neither Menon nor Manmohan are pushovers, as seems to be implied.
Secondly, one can think of several reasons why the inclusion of Balochistan at this point might, in fact, strengthen India’s negotiating position. It will be recalled that some years ago, when the Pakistani army killed Baloch leader Sardar Bugti, India had formally issued a statement deploring the incident. It provoked Pakistan to react furiously, demanding that India desist from interfering in its internal affairs. Today, they appear to be asking India to comment on developments in Balochistan—on the activities of the Quetta shoora, the haven it offers to the Al Qaeda-Taliban leadership, the human rights violations against Baloch civilians, and so on. Pakistan has been at pains to reassure India that the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline will be secure through the territory of Balochistan. They now accept that they are facing threats there similar to the ones ‘in other areas’, presumably, Swat and Waziristan, where they are fighting a civil war.
One could speculate further: India now has the option to internationalise the struggle for self-determination of the Baloch people, should it wish to—in the United Nations and other international forums. Perhaps the Pakistani prime minister needed to show his domestic (read military) audience that he had managed to raise the issue of Indian interference with the Indian prime minister—though the drafting wouldn’t have satisfied their hawks.
As I have said earlier, in international diplomacy, there is much that cannot be made public while the process is still on. Meanwhile, the tendency to rip apart the reputation of a fine officer like Menon can only be deplored.
(The author is a former Indian ambassador to the United Nations, Geneva.)