Why Shivshankar Menon?
Shivshankar Menon was the National Security Advisor to former prime minister Manmohan Singh during UPA-II. During his tenure as NSA, he was instrumental in pushing through the India-US nuclear deal. Prior to that, he was a diplomat and served in crucial locations — he was India’s ambassador to Israel and high commissioner to Pakistan, China and Sri Lanka.
He has taught at Harvard University and last year, joined the Brookings Institution as a distinguished fellow. He is writing a book on India’s foreign policy.
PRAVEEN SWAMI: What are your thoughts on the current status of peace talks with Pakistan? The criticism has been, ‘Look, you do this high-voltage resumption of talks, and then you get an attack on the consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif and later Pathankot.’
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Well, there are three or four false assumptions. One is, talks don’t stop or start terrorism, and terrorism is not what should determine whether you talk or not. You should talk or have a dialogue or engage if it’s in your interest. And if it is in your interest, then frankly, whether or not Pathankot is attacked doesn’t change that fundamental interest in the talks. You can argue that every time in the past when talks have been successful, or the more successful they are, the more severe the attack. You could say that when we were close to a J&K solution in 2005-2006, we ended up with serial blasts, first after (Pervez) Musharraf’s April 2005 visit, and then the serial Mumbai train blasts in 2006. When you actually made progress on J&K, you had the Mumbai (26/11) attacks. But to stop talks because of a terrorist attack is to give the terrorists exactly what they want. That’s not a very sensible policy.
So why is it in our interest to engage with Pakistan? There are two ways of looking at it. One is when we didn’t talk to Pakistan, like during (Operation) Parakram in 2002, who suffered more — India or Pakistan? To my mind, India. For a very simple reason: you’re the one who is tied much more to the rest of the world. Your tourism, foreign investments slowed down considerably. Some estimates say you lost almost 2 per cent of your GDP because of prolonged military confrontation. Pakistan had no tourism, nothing much happened to their economy. Secondly, it gives other people an excuse to interfere in what happens between you and Pakistan. Thirdly, you are not dealing with one Pakistan, you’re dealing with their civil society, Pakistani businesses, civilian politicians, the Army and the ISI, and the extreme religious groups and parties. Not all of them have the same attitude and it’s not in your interest to unite them all and say, “Katti, I won’t talk to you.” Katti is not policy.
PRAVEEN SWAMI: This government has used quite an extraordinary language of diplomacy, with the PM dropping in at Lahore recently. Is this a sustainable idiom of democracy?
I can’t speak for this government. I have nothing to do with their policies, I don’t know what’s on their mind. Nor can I speak about whether they have pre-negotiated or have reason to believe that Pakistan will deliver on their promises. I’m talking not just about (punishing) 26/11 perpetrators but actually acting against terrorism and the groups that attack us, opening up Wagah to more goods etc. So if you ask me, honestly, today I cannot say whether the optics will actually result in the substance but it would be very unusual for any government to just do the optics without any assurances. So I am quite happy to be surprised.
PRAVEEN SWAMI: In a speech last year, you had mentioned that India’s foreign policy goal was essentially ensuring the transformation of India. This government seems to be concerned with signalling India’s power. Do you think, keeping in mind what happened in Myanmar or the very unpleasant situation with Nepal now, there is a danger of power projection overtaking the first objective of building an enabling neighbourhood?
I see Myanmar and all as part of learning statecraft. It doesn’t worry me that much. But I do think that you need much more clarity on your goal. Most governments of India, until this one, have always defined it as eliminating poverty, illiteracy, diseases and making sure that India becomes a modern, socialist country where we solve our own social and economic problems. That is one set of goals. Yes, you have to be a great power to achieve some of those goals. But whether the time now is to concentrate on being a great power, a projecting power, and doing all the other things that go with it or focussing on organic growth from trying to transform India, that is exactly where you get into a grey area. For me, the problem is the lack of a clear strategic vision from the government, which says either we buy into what has always been or we have an alternative. Now India has grown to the stage where we can change our goals. But you need to have a discussion on that rationally and consciously. If you (decide on the change), you need to signal it to the rest of the world as well, especially your neighbours. I am not sure if that has happened in the last few months.
RAKESH SINHA: Has India messed it up in Nepal? Could the approach have been different, better?
I don’t know. I think there are a whole set of issues in Nepal which are primarily their own business. It is very easy in Nepal to blame India for Nepal’s problems. Until they come to some accommodation among themselves, each one will either come to India and ask for help or blame us. Ultimately, we are so closely linked with our open border and in terms of economic interdependence and people that I am confident that it will work out. You could argue that there has been tactical clumsiness over the way it was done in the last few months, but that’s not important when it comes to India-Nepal relations. (Khadga Prasad Sharma) Oli (Nepal PM) said he will be visiting India. I believe ultimately good sense will prevail, though there will be patchiness in the relations for some time. We also have to lighten up and look at how far Nepal has come from a vicious 12-year insurgency.
SHEELA BHATT: Do you think, in the given circumstances, India should go ahead with the January 15 foreign secretary-level talks?
I don’t think calling off the talks is an answer. That is, like I said before, giving the terrorists exactly what they want. I would say go ahead with the talks but use the talks to deal with it and tell Pakistan that now we expect to see you’re dealing with these problems and furnish them with evidence. Put them to test.
SHEELA BHATT: What major differences do you see between Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi in dealing with Pakistan?
I’m not sure I am qualified to answer that. As I said, there is much more public projection. But I find it hard to believe that there are only optics and no assurances. I would assume that taken together, it is still India’s policy.
PRAVEEN SWAMI: Some people are advocating that after Pathankot, India should respond in a muscular fashion. After 26/11, this choice confronted you in a much more traumatic way. Why did you decide not to retaliate? Was it because General Deepak Kapoor wasn’t ready or the Army wasn’t ready?
I don’t think that is really the case. Immediately after 26/11, the Pakistan army started crying wolf that India is about to attack, though we had not done anything. It was clear that they wanted you to (attack). It was a time when three or four things had happened: Lashkar itself had split with Ilyas Kashmiri; there were parts of the Lashkar which were saying that why are we sparing the Pakistani government. Pakistan army’s stock was very low. It served both their interests to actually get you to react. So, why give them the authenticity?
Second, what happens if we do and what did happen when we didn’t.
Honestly, at that time I, as an individual, thought we should (attack). But now when I look in hindsight, I think it was a great decision (not to attack).
But if you ask me, if they do a similar attack, no government of India could not do something, politically. But let’s be clear, Pathankot is not another Mumbai.
AMITABH SINHA: At the MEA press conference this week, it was announced that the ball is in Pakistan’s court on bilateral talks. What do you have to say about that?
Well, that is up to them. As I said, I don’t speak for the government. I was surprised by two or three things. One, we postponed the talks with China. If six terrorists can stop you from discussing serious business with your biggest neighbour, for me, that’s not a good signal to send out. My own instinct is, therefore, different. But they must have come to a calculation, so I’m not going to sit and second-guess.
PRANAV KULKARNI: Your successor (Ajit Doval) is being criticised for the way he has handled Pathankot. What is your analysis? If you were in power right now, how would you have handled it?
All I know about the operation and how it was handled is from what you all tell me. As far as I conceive it, there is a lot of scheming, leaking in the media. So I am not going to comment on it.
PRAVEEN SWAMI: Should the office of the National Security Adviser be involved with tactical decision-making in individual operations or should the execution be delegated to relevant service chiefs?
We were the first parliamentary democracy to have the NSA. It is easy in a presidential system because NSA generally represents the president’s view. So ours is still an evolving procedure. Each NSA has done the job in their own way. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer here.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: One stream of thought in diplomacy says that Pakistan is not much of a strategic threat to India, that India should not focus its diplomatic efforts on Pakistan and rather focus on the rest of the world, and that it can isolate Pakistan if it refuses to negotiate. What are your thoughts ?
If you do a security calculus of what are the big security threats and risks for India, what can affect our ability to transform India, you would come to the conclusion that Pakistan is nowhere near the top. They have thrown everything at us since the 1980s, whether in Khalistan or J&K. But these are precisely the years when India has done best in terms of transforming ourselves. Look at where we were 20 years ago, and where they were, just compare. So I would not rate them very high in that hierarchy. There are other things which will affect your ability to transform India much more fundamentally. One of them certainly is peaceful periphery, and Pakistan is part of the periphery. So it does matter to that extent. But it is not as though tomorrow if you settle everything with Pakistan, your GDP will grow exponentially, your society is going to change, all the internal polarisation is going to stop.
You are right when you say why to give so much attention (to Pakistan). If you look at it over the last few years, I think, in effect, our strategic focus has really shifted to the entire Asia Pacific region and we are looking at the maritime strategy since 2004.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: How much is terror a matter of domestic policy? For example, both in Mazar-e-Sharif and Pathankot, there seems to have been a thought of avenging Afzal Guru’s hanging. How much terror comes from what the government of India does internally?
Very little. The risk is if we don’t handle our internal affairs properly — communal violence has gone up steadily over the last three years — we are creating an environment in which radicalisation can take place, in which groups like IS and Lashkar can work. You are actually creating an environment which helps them. That is the real risk.
COOMI KAPOOR: Where does an NSA figure in the hierarchy? For example, in the Pathankot crisis, it seems that the Home Minister was very much out of the picture. So how does it work? What should be the conventional way?
I don’t know, frankly. There is a laid-down structure. There is a crisis management group, which is supposed to do these things. There is CCS (cabinet community on security). There are a whole lot of people involved. I don’t want to guess on the basis of these kinds of reports. I don’t want to guess what actually happened and who should have done what.
PRAVEEN SWAMI: One of the things Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to do is use the Indian diaspora as resourceful leverage — you have seen that in Dubai, Madison Square, Sydney — is that something of value or is it just a footnote in the real business of diplomacy or is it something all prior PMs have missed out on?
Well, we had a Ministry for Overseas Indian Affairs. In the first year, he (Modi) wasn’t globe-trotting. In the first year, he spent one day more abroad than Manmohan Singh did in his first year. But, I think the amount of sound about it, the noise, the publicity is much, much more. It will be good if it results in substance. As I keep telling, optics are useful, but they are only means. I don’t think you can measure diplomacy in one or two years. Because we do this all the time. Diplomacy is not a T20 match. Every ball is not a six or a wicket. It’s a long grind.
SHEELA BHATT: Sanjaya Baru had written a book in which he gives a very good picture of the PMO. How was your experience with the Congress and what were your interactions with Sonia Gandhi like?
I don’t know if it makes sense to go around titillating people with stories of your own when nobody knows everything. The problem with books like that (Baru’s book The Accidental Prime Minister) is they somehow convey the idea that, ‘I know everything what is going on inside, this is what actually happened.’ It’s just not true. I know of 3-4 instances in that book that are false. But I am not going to go into that. Because, that would be to fall into the same trap. Frankly, it’s nobody’s business. How does it matter? This book was wrong. Why do you believe it? If you need a judgment on that period, what was weak, what was not. Frankly, just look at what is India doing today. Most of the foundations were laid then and people will accept this.
SHEELA BHATT: Was Manmohan Singh a strong political leader?
Look, here’s somebody who pushed 123 (India-US nuclear deal) through, was willing to stake the future of his government on it. No confidence motion. Was it weakness? Is it? I don’t think so.
(Transcribed by Pallabi Munsi and Kamalika Sarkar)