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Quirks of fate boost Manmohan's standing

Saturday April 02, 2011 01:12:19 PM, Amulya Ganguli, IANS

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's decision to invite his counterpart in Pakistan, Yousuf Raza Gilani, to watch the India-Pakistan cricket match in the World Cup semifinal in Chandigarh may prove to be a successful initiative for more than one reason.

For one, it cannot but boost the prime minister's personal standing both in the country and in his own Congress party. Battered and bruised as he (like his party) has been in the last few months because of various scams, the possibility of a marginal and momentary improvement in relations between the two hostile neighbours will provide welcome relief.

For another, the diversion of attention from the scams, even for a temporary period, will enable the prime minister to turn to matters of governance, where the problem of "deficit" has been noted by, among others, Home Minister P. Chidambaram.

But, most importantly, what the decision showed was that Manmohan Singh had decided to assert himself unlike in the recent past when his prolonged silences and apparent acquiescence in the suspected wrong doings of ministers and party men had damaged his credibility.

The most notable of these submissive attitudes, which hurt him considerably, was to give the former telecom minister, Andimuthu Raja, a long rope despite mounting evidence of his acts of omission and commission. Taken together with the prime minister's decision to appoint the controversial bureaucrat, P.J. Thomas, as central vigilance commissioner, for which he subsequently accepted all the blame, Manmohan Singh's position had hit an all-time low.

The belief was that he could be bullied by belligerent allies like the Left on economic reforms, as during 2004 and 2008, and by the DMK on the telecom scam till the minister's arrest earlier this year.

But the decision to invite Gilani - which was taken apparently without consulting the external affairs ministry - showed that he was recovering his poise. Not surprisingly, it was on the issue of improving ties with Pakistan that he decided to be his own man instead of being extra sensitive to the predilections of others, whether they are in the Congress or outside.

As has been known for some time, one of the issues (apart from the nuclear deal) on which Manmohan Singh has strong views is India-Pakistan relations. His desire for better ties was also displayed by his predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, when he invited Pervez Musharraf, then president of Pakistan, for a meeting in Agra in 2001, and also two years earlier when he took the initiative to visit Lahore to inaugurate a bus service between the two countries.

It is apparently the wish of all Indian prime ministers to leave their imprint on history by solving the seemingly insoluble India-Pakistan "problem". As in Vajpayee's case, where his own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Hindutva brigade were lukewarm, if not palpably displeased, about his initiative, Manmohan Singh, too, has had to contend with a section in the Congress which is not too enthusiastic about reaching out to Pakistan at a time when it is regarded as the epicentre of terrorism by a vast majority of Indians.

Since this perception is bound to be used by the BJP to show the Congress as being "soft" on terror, the Congress has been wary about Manmohan Singh's friendly moves in this respect. In fact, he had to virtually retract much of the joint statement, which he and Gilani had issued after a meeting in Sharm-el-Sheikh in 2009 because it contained a line about suspected Indian involvement in the unrest in the troubled Pakistani province of Balochistan.

Yet, the fact that despite the resistance which Manmohan Singh faces about his goodwill gestures, he still decided to go ahead with his invitation to Gilani showed that on matters close to his heart, he is willing to take a certain amount of risk. He did the same thing on the nuclear deal, which also faced hurdles from anti-American elements in the Congress and from a section of the scientific establishment, not to mention the Left, which withdrew its support to the Manmohan Singh government on the issue in 2008.

It was, however, a quirk of fate which enabled the prime minister to reach out to Pakistan this time. If India did not win against Australia in the quarterfinals, there would not have been any Manmohan Singh-Gilani interaction. If India did not win against Pakistan, the mood in India would have been too glum for the prime minister and the Congress, and the hyperactive Indian media, to display any enthusiasm about a forward movement in India-Pakistan ties. But the present upbeat mood has created conditions for at least more diplomatic contacts, which have virtually been frozen since the Mumbai massacres of November 2008.

The presence of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul, at the Mohali cricket ground near Chandigarh, where the match was played, was yet another favourable sign, for it showed that the party and the prime minister were on the same page. It may be recalled that it was Rahul's support which enabled Manmohan Singh to push through the nuclear deal since the doubting Thomases in the Congress were silenced.

Similarly, if the Congress supports Manmohan Singh's overtures to Pakistan, and America leans on Pakistan, and especially its army, to do more to cleanse the country of terrorists, there will be a possibility of genuine rapprochement.



(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

 

 

 

 

 

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Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister of Pakistan Yousuf Raza Gilani watching the Indo-Pak World Cup semi-final, at the Punjab Cricket Association stadium, in Mohali on March 30, 2011. Also seen are UPA Chairperson Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Lok Sabha Speaker Mrs Meira Kumar.

 

 
 
 
 
 

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