‘You shouldn’t be unfair to Ashwani… There’s a thin line between interfering and remaining informed’https://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/you-shouldnt-be-unfair-to-ashwani-theres-a-thin-line-between-interfering-and-remaining-informed/

‘You shouldn’t be unfair to Ashwani… There’s a thin line between interfering and remaining informed’

Khurshid talks about challenges of his job,and in light of controversy surrounding Law Ministry.

In this Idea Exchange,Union Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid talks about the challenges of his job,and in the light of the controversy surrounding the Law Ministry,the limits of his previous portfolio. This session was moderated by Editor,Express News Service,Pranab Dhal Samanta

SALMAN KHURSHID: I’ve been in this ministry for six months. The difference between the Law and Justice Ministry (Khurshid’s previous portfolio) and External Affairs is that in Law and Justice,there were problems every day that the minister was expected to resolve. In External Affairs,there are problems every day and the minister is told they have been resolved!… We have the best leading team available here and in missions abroad… We need a greater understanding of economic issues because that’s what many of our people are handling. I hope that over the next three-five years,we’ll have a much wider and clearer footprint of what we are trying to do.

We’ve been lucky that our foreign policy has been based on widespread consensus on how our foreign policy is and how it should be supported across party lines… There is an attempt to question it in order to push a political agenda given certain circumstances,but the consensus that we inherited on foreign policy hasn’t been diluted,dented or rejected.

The last dimension that I want to flag is India’s soft diplomacy. We have centres across the world where we teach yoga and Indian music etc,and there’s the quiet role that Bollywood films have continued to play. President Karzai recently said he had stopped watching Indian films because he claimed our actresses no longer dress like Indians,they dress like Europeans. So it is important for us to dress like Indians! In the years to come,we have to think of this not as a pastime but as an integral part of our foreign policy articulation.

Pranab Dhal Samanta: Do you feel the government conceded too much or was the Prime Minister very harsh in asking the two ministers

to resign?

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I think our leadership shows a great deal of compassion,tries to comfort any one of us if we are in political trouble. But the larger interest of the party and the country prevails quite often and sacrifices have to be made. We have to cut losses,contain collateral damage and,as our party has very categorically said,accepting or even seeking resignations from senior functionaries of the government is not necessarily an acceptance of their guilt. Certain tactical retreats sometimes become necessary or gestures become necessary.

Swaraj Thapa: You said that in the Law Ministry you are expected to solve problems. Do you think (former law minister) Ashwani Kumar tried to solve a problem or created a problem for the government?

We shouldn’t be unfair to Ashwani by not articulating what his considered view is,which I think wouldn’t be very different for people who’ve served as law minister. Sometimes something that is not necessarily wrong,in a set of circumstances appears to be wrong,which is why people say in public life perception is far more important than reality. There is a thin red line between remaining informed and interfering in a matter where interference is not justified. To come to a conclusion at this stage that the law minister going to the extent that Ashwani went to is improper/

illegitimate/unlawful would be premature. The matter is before the court and when the court takes a view,it will be binding,but we expect that the court will only take a view when all circumstances are dutifully explained. Any other view will lead to a lot of difficulties in the functioning of the Law Ministry.

But this should not be seen as the remotest endorsement,or an attempt to interfere in an investigation. I’ve written a piece that I haven’t yet given to the media but I’ll pull out two lines that I have written in it. Please reflect on them: the assumption is that autonomy equals honesty. My response is that is wrong. It is honesty that equals autonomy. If your editor is honest,nobody can influence him. He will be autonomous. If your editor is autonomous,he may be the most dishonest person but nobody can do anything because he is autonomous. India needs to provide systems that pick the honest people and bring them to the top and autonomy will come by itself. No amount of autonomy will bring you honest people.

Swaraj Thapa: Do you think that Ashwani Kumar has shut the door on any kind of interaction the CBI director or officers can have with the government vis-à-vis reports in special cases?

I hope not. The court has to decide. In Vineet Narain’s case,the court has given some leeway sensibly so that the government doesn’t become irrelevant to investigations. The court may decide now to actually specify what is relevant and what is extraneous or irrelevant. But one point should be emphasised: you have just the same rights to fairness and justice that I have. And you have just the same duty to not interfere as I have. We should be ensured justice irrespective of who we are. The fact that you’ve become a minister doesn’t mean that you forego your right to justice — natural or otherwise.

Y P Rajesh: Fresh peace overtures have been made by the next likely PM of Pakistan. In India,there is extreme exuberance in one section,cautious optimism in another and a third section says let’s eat the pudding. Where does the government stand on this?

The good thing is that we always take a balanced and a reasonable view of the world around us. When events happen,we don’t have to take a 360 degree turn. We just have to make minor adjustments. Our balanced and reasonable approach with Pakistan before this election was that there have been many issues that have been hurtful for us. It is important that we get some indication from the Pakistan establishment that they are addressing them. We remain adamant that those things should be addressed. But we are not putting them as conditionalities for beginning afresh. Every time there is a change,we must give hope a chance. It is in that spirit that we have greeted the new PM. But we haven’t been able to factor in everything to take a firm view of what are the next steps we have to take,and how if they take steps we must respond. This is in the process.

Shubhajit Roy: Which has been the most difficult foreign policy challenge of your tenure — the recent incursion incident with China,Sarabjit Singh’s killing,or the GMR contract controversy with Maldives?

None of these. I think the most difficult was when we had to keep calm and take a call in difficult circumstances on Sri Lanka (the vote in the UN Human Rights Council on the country). Our colleagues from Tamil Nadu were extremely distressed. We had reasons to be distressed about conditions in northern Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government had made commitments towards reconciliation and a sustainable peace… There wasn’t complete satisfaction on our side,certainly not enough to satisfy many colleagues from Tamil Nadu. We were being urged to depart from a traditionally held position (and vote against Lanka). It could have been detrimental to the so-called consensus position we have maintained on non-interference in the internal matters of countries and country-specific resolutions in the UN system. There was a public outcry. We understood the pain,the concern… and we understood the politics as well. If people feel strongly,then they express themselves strongly and we have to factor that in. If you have three-six months to work,it’s a lot easier. But we had to do this within a matter of hours,days. We took what I believe was the best decision in the circumstances,but some people will disagree. But that’s the cross you have to bear when you stand up for a larger cause.

Rakesh Sinha: What is your view on the Tamil Nadu government not allowing Sri Lankan cricketers to play in the state?

We can advise,counsel,but it is ultimately a decision that a state government has to make based on their understanding of the ground reality and their political priorities. So we can take note of what they have done,but at the end of the day,it’s their decision and we don’t want to necessarily be publicly critical of a decision that an elected state government makes,even if it causes us discomfort or inconvenience.

Maneesh Chhibber: There’s a perception that the PM didn’t want to let go of Ashwani Kumar.

Our leadership shows compassion and confidence in each one of us but at the end of the day,somebody has to take a tough decision. Either we do it ourselves or we let our party leadership do it. But the process is not really of public interest. It’s the result that is of public interest… If the public thinks that something should be done,even if it’s temporary or if it’s subject to further confirmation or further adjudication,I think we’ve submitted to that judgment. But it should not be a judgment of condemning a person. With dignity someone decides to lay down office,with dignity we should allow them to vindicate themselves or submit to a final adjudication that may not go in their favour.

Maneesh Chhibber: Could the damage have been controlled if the ministers had resigned on the very first day?

That’s one way of looking at it. It might have done more damage… We may have had a long line of people walking out. Our detractors are very good at writing letters and planting stories. A lot of people will then bite the dust long before judgments are pronounced. So you have to balance everything,you can’t be a pushover and you can’t be insensitive. In between there are real facts,the facts have to be adjudicated. If you become a pushover,you’re finished. If you become insensitive,you don’t really have much of a future. So we’ve tried to take the middle path.

Manu Pubby: Do you think the number of days it took to resolve the border standoff with China indicates the need for a new framework to resolve such issues in the future?

Can I tell you the truth? I had a very good conversation with the Chinese Prime Minister. Before that I had a good meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The Foreign Minister showed me the exceptional courtesy of coming to my hotel 10 minutes after I had checked in just to greet me. We started off on a very good note. That note continued over the next day and it climaxed in one of my best meetings with heads of government. But some of your colleagues think it is a very bad thing that I had a very good meeting,and that I had the cheek to say that I’ve had a very good meeting. I don’t think that’s good for this country. If we have a good meeting,let us say we had a good meeting. I did bring up the issue of the border problem and said that this should not happen again. I added that for this not to happen again,don’t we need to examine our systems to find out why it happened? In diplomacy,you bring out the best in the other person in whichever way possible. And I think that what we brought out in this visit to China was a genuine desire to work together with India in multifarious ways,including investments here,multilateral fora,bilateral relationship,and ensuring that these incidents don’t happen. But honestly,the reason it took so long is that the media got to know it had happened. It would have been resolved much faster if you didn’t know that it had happened. It would still have got resolved if you didn’t decide every night to talk about it — the Chinese watch Indian television. I’m not saying don’t report it next time,all I’m saying is please help us with diplomacy.

We need to examine our systems to see why this happened. We have a special representative,NSA,and there will be a meeting in a few months. I think that when they review the system,they will congratulate each other for having put in place a system that works because the answer to the pessimist who kept telling me this will not work,is that it worked.

Manoj C G: Narendra Modi recently suggested that all states should have their representatives in our missions. Your comment?

I think it’s a very bad idea. I don’t think that federalism should be made to compete with a national point of view. There has to be a national point of view,and I think there is one. If he’s not familiar with it,I’m very happy to work with him. What is represented abroad is a national point of view. There are better things that you can put into a manifesto to become the top leader of this country than to compromise with this country’s ability to speak to the world.

Vandita Mishra: A while ago,you had spoken about Rahul Gandhi’s ‘cameo’ appearances. You had said these had created a problem for the Congress because the party has been waiting for him to take the lead. Now that he is vice-president,have things changed?

We were pleased with Rahul Gandhi’s appearance in Jaipur when he unfolded a vision for our party. If you visit the AICC any day in the week you will find there are some hours that he sets aside for working on that vision directly with people from different states without intermediaries. So he’s taking on more and more of the burden of running the party. But as I understand,his priority is on a forward-looking picture of what he wants the party to be. Sometimes that causes impatience to people who like quick fixes,but he has his own style. It’s a solid style,it’s a steady style and it’s a scientific style. We are very happy that he has come into this role of assisting the Congress president. Some of the recent decisions that the party has taken have a clear stamp of Rahul Gandhi’s thinking. There’s an increasing,meaningful role being given to some of our very bright young people who would otherwise be waiting around on the sidelines for years on end.

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Sudeep Paul: Despite having the friendliest government in Dhaka,it’s largely our fault that we’ve little to show for it. If Sheikh Hasina is voted out,can we avoid a 180-degree turn on Bangladesh?

This is what makes my job very difficult. If I say they’re friendly,I create a problem for the Bangladesh government because people there will say,‘India thinks you’re friendly,but India doesn’t give you anything. It obviously means you are giving India everything and India’s not giving you anything’. That creates a problem in Bangladesh. So we keep our mouth shut. What we are doing is in the Indian interest. Let somebody convince me that the land boundary agreement is not in Indian interest. The reality on the ground is that when we drew our boundary,there were parts that we thought were Indian but they remain with them,there were parts that they thought were Bangladeshi but remain with us. Now because what is de facto a reality is not becoming de jure a fact,we can’t build a fence there. And if we can’t build a fence there,then the very thing you’re complaining about can’t come to an end,which is the infiltration of people. This is in India’s interest. This is not in Bangladesh’s interest alone. Anything that is in the interest of two friendly countries cannot and must not be described as a compromise or softness. We are urging our opposition leaders to come on board. I think as a nation we will gain and as a nation we must do it.

Transcribed by Kamala Kelkar and Ruchika Talwar

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