While India’s self-esteem got a boost, the questions will continue until the government satisfies public curiosity. Defending the Congress’s decision to reveal details of the Army actions carried out under the UPA government, he recounts how A B Vajpayee supported the then Narasimha Rao government on countering a Pakistan-backed resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
* How do you view the surgical strikes?
The strikes, frankly, are a matter of our national self-esteem, that we are not a pushover. These are not strikes that will eliminate the root cause of terrorism. We will obviously continue our efforts on every other front, including diplomatic front. Ultimately, the solution has to be found far beyond the Line of Control. We believe there have been some mistakes in handling of Pakistan by this government… but inevitably such things will happen in a dynamic situation. I don’t think this is a moment in which we should be asking questions, because right now the message should go (out) that it is one nation, one voice, one sentiment.
* But those within your party are asking questions.
Nobody is questioning the strikes. There are people in our party who have active minds, and they are saying we need to know more. There are questions being raised here, in Pakistan etc. Why are these questions being raised? If the purpose of the strikes is told, there would be no further discussion. But the purpose is not being told. We have to work out the purpose for ourselves. Tit for tat? But is tit for tat enough? When Israel attacks some place, say nuclear facilities in Iran, they do it with a definite objective, that we will delay the nuclear programme by four years etc. So is there a plan? Like five strikes, and we will be in a much more comfortable position… Since the government has not spoken about any clear plan, there are some people who are asking questions… You can’t give operational details, but you can give more information than has been given. If people are asking, either explain to them why it can’t be given and should not be given, or satisfy them in any other manner… you can’t kill conversation within the country.
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* What made your party reveal details of the strikes carried out under its UPA government?
Because there is some negativity in the manner of display of what we have done. While we were supportive of the government, the general discourse was not appreciative of the support of the Congress. And it was important that the Congress set the record straight. Let nobody assume, as there was an implied or explicit suggestion, that the Congress could not do it. We have done it… if we didn’t tom-tom it, it was our decision, and if they are tom-tomming it, then it is their decision.
* Why are you tom-tomming it now?
You cannot hold somebody guilty by association and say they never do it. If nobody had said Congress never did it and couldn’t do it, we would not have said no, we have done it.
* You are asking for details. Your government kept the strikes a secret.
Either don’t announce it, or if you want to announce it, then satisfy public curiosity.
* On issues of national security, India has always witnessed an element of bipartisanship and consensus. In 1994, you and A B Vajpayee together thwarted a Pakistan-sponsored resolution claiming human rights violations in Kashmir at the UNHRC. What has changed?
The nature of politics has changed in India. It is less a sense of serving the cause…and more an assessment of what will it get me. It would be silly for me to say that we were saints and never cared about the response of the people. Everybody does think keeping in mind the response of the people…we did it also. But it’s where you stop. If you give too much prominence to that, it becomes a totally different factor.
* Would Vajpayee have done it differently now?
Vajpayee was incredibly supportive of the government. He not only supported the government from outside, he was almost like an insider for a government of the Congress. I was deputy leader and he was leader of that delegation. So the government in office had a deputy leader… We found that he was an insider as far as we were concerned on the issue of our approach to the UNHRC… he had the same approach that we had. If he was the leader and if he succeeded, he would get kudos, and he did get kudos… It wasn’t that the PR machinery of the Congress party and the government said keep Vajpayee out.
* Do you see that happening again?
No, the range of leaders that we have today, I don’t see this happening and this hasn’t happened.
* How do you see the government’s response to questions regarding the strikes… like accusing Arvind Kejriwal of helping Pakistan?
That is ridiculous. The moment somebody says you are helping Pakistan, they are helping Pakistan. The moment you tell your own people that you are helping Pakistan, you are sending a clear message to Pakistan that we are a divided country. It is pathetic to accuse anyone of helping Pakistan. Nobody in this country would think of helping Pakistan, because there is nothing redeeming about Pakistan. Peace can be continued for a hundred years, and a war can be fought not even for a hundred days… Even if we fight a war with Pakistan, at the end of the war, there will be peace talks… You end war by talking.
* So is dialogue a possibility?
Today it is difficult. The atmosphere is too negative for a dialogue. It serves no purpose to talk about a dialogue today… But at some future date, what else will we have? Is there anybody in the government who is saying that the only solution with Pakistan is war… In their right mind, they would not say that.
* Do you think the unrest in Kashmir is linked to the increase in cross-border terrorism?
Any time that there is trouble in India, if someone wants to hurt us, they will take advantage of it. The lesson for us is let’s try to minimise trouble in our country. Let us minimise the chances of a division among ourselves… When we are being attacked repeatedly, we can’t show any signs of military, psychological or political weakness… Why are we bringing this weakness, only for some silly political arguments.
* Will the strikes have an effect on the elections in Uttar Pradesh?
The issues in UP are too set and rooted to be pushed aside by this kind of talk. This will pass. This is not something which you can sustain for six months. They may get a little high today, but ultimately UP will decide on bread-and-butter issues.
* While the BJP’s top leadership is quiet, there are posters claiming credit for the strikes.
They can claim credit for anything they want… It is a democracy… Whether it is proper, whether it is good behaviour, it is not for me to judge… If they want to take credit, other parties will decide what they have to say.
* Did the Congress walk into a trap by reacting the way it did?
What trap? In history, it would have been recorded that the Congress did not do anything and was useless. If someone is trying to manipulate history, you are duty bound to ensure that history is not hijacked.
* As a former External Affairs Minister, what do you think is the way forward?
The same way that we used to take — talks. But as and when the time is ripe. Today, we are saying you decide what you want to do and we will support you. But if you have another way, other than the way that we took, go ahead and take it. What we felt was strategically necessary at that time, we did it without making any fanfare… We are here to support them. They never supported us. They always questioned our intentions and our ability.
* While tension was high even during your time, the back channels were open. Now that the NDA government has publicised the strikes, do you think that option is closed?
They are talking. Has (NSA Ajit) Doval talked or not. Let’s not take this country for a ride. We are not saying you don’t talk now, and not a single phone call should be made. It’s a complex situation. Leave it to the government to handle it the best way possible… I don’t want to put him in a position where he becomes self-conscious on whether he should pick up the phone or not. (It is) entirely up to them… good for us that we don’t have to face flak because we are not in the government.
* What if there is another terror attack?
A terror attack already happened in Baramulla…and there was no second surgical strike. We can’t pin them down saying that even if anybody uses a firecracker, there should be another surgical strike… Let them take their decisions in the best possible way. If they take that decision, we are here to support them. But don’t make the people believe that the problem has been resolved. Because it has not. Our self-esteem has certainly got a boost, but our problem is still there.