India is Pakistans obsession

Updated: Aug 20 2006, 05:30am hrs
This week was a busy one for the PM and his deputies in the Foreign Ministry, especially MoS Anand Sharma. Defending the Government in Parliament on the nuclear deal with the US from both the Left and the Right must have been a trying experience. Yesterday, Sharma joined The Indian Express Group reporters and editors for lunch at our office and shared some of his experiences and thoughts. Born in 1953, a lawyer by training, and then having cut his teeth in the Youth Congress in the mid-Eighties, Sharma got elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1984. Chief spokesman of the Congress party for long, he become the Minister of State for External Affairs in the UPA Government eight months ago.

C RAJA MOHAN: Its a changing world. Indian foreign policy too has been changing and evolving. But what about the MEA and its old entrenched bureaucratic set-up keeping pace with this change

We have to accept different perceptions. In the system, there are pro-active voices in support of Indias stances and commitments, there are also sceptics. In a way this helps us have in-house debates before formulating policies, though it does delay decisions.

SHEKHAR GUPTA: The Prime Minister is skipping the UN General Assembly session to attend the NAM summit in Cuba. Is this preference for Castro over Bush, Havana over New York to address the domestic constituencies, especially the Left

There is nothing like that. The NAM summit is important for us India was one of its founding members. There is also the first India-Brazil-South Africa summit in Brazil around the same time... The absence of the Prime Minister at the highest level is not going to affect our interests in any way. The Prime Minister has a lot of travelling to do in September-October. There will also be few world leaders at the UN meet this time.

SHEKHAR GUPTA: Brazil, South Africa, India...in all three countries, we have Left-supported governments. Also reforms are happening fast in these countries. There is a churning happening everywhere.

Its a natural process for the Left to change, in terms of reforms. Look at the functioning of the chief ministers of West Bengal and Kerala. It has been happening in China. Australia and China signed a bilateral nuclear deal early this year. China is set to build six nuclear reactors. Our nuclear deal with the US is civilian and there is a separation plan under the guidelines of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

C RAJA MOHAN: What about the sudden breakdown of the Indo-Pak peace process Where is the process headed

We started the dialogue process with Pakistan with a set of confidence-building measures. We have people-to-people contacts, academic delegations from both the countries visiting each other, the bus service, scholarships to students, exchange of parliamentary delegations. After all, we are addressing six decades of mistrust. But dialogue is a two-way process. Pakistan has also made assurances to us on many counts. And foreign policy is a reflection of domestic realities. We cannot close our eyes when hundreds of our people are getting killed. Both the countries have a commitment to continue with the dialogue process. However, in the wake of the Mumbai blasts, Pakistan is in a mode of denial. And their statements are not helpful for the dialogue process to continue.

AKSHAYA SAXENA: But India too has expelled a Pakistani diplomat.

We are a democracy, we are liberal. But the statements from the Pakistani side in the wake of the Mumbai serial blasts were provocative and uncalled for. Also there is no justification for blindfolding and handcuffing a senior Indian diplomat. And in diplomacy you have to take necessary counter-steps too. But we have to work to normalise the relationship.

PRANAB DHAL SAMANTA: Any dates finalised for the foreign secretary-level talks

The talks must continue. But there should be a conducive atmosphere for the talks to take place.

UNNI RAJEN SHANKER: The MEA and the National Security Advisor seem to have different opinions on the same issue.

I wont say so (that the opinions are different). Rather it is the nature of the job (NSAs job). The NSA oversees the overall security situation and sometimes he speaks about it. Thats it.

MANINI CHATTERJEE: Many feel that fielding Shashi Tharoor for the UN Secretary Generals job was a trade-off with Indias efforts for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

No, thats not correct. Tharoor is an Under Secretary at the UN with a proven track record. Since this is Asias turn to have a Secretary General from the region, he is the best candidate...We are committed to UN reforms and when there is a framework for UN reforms, which includes the Security Council, we will pitch for our rightful demand. For that there should be a comprehensive framework in place.

Many feel that the UN is unrepresentative it doesnt have a permanent Security Council member from Africa. Its still reflective of the Second World War era. So what we need is a comprehensive reform of the UN. And the reforms should be in conformity with the fundamental principals of the United Nations and the UN charter.

TENZING LAMSANG: What is our policy on China They have been helping Pakistan openly, ULFA and Naga militants in the past, and have pulled out from several ventures planned together with India.

We have a hard-headed policy towards China. We engage with them in a variety of ways, Indian companies are doing business in China, we realise that China pursues its interests. There was a period when relations between India and China were strained when they were supporting some elements in the North East and they werent helpful to us, but now things have changed, and we would want the situation to take a positive turn. We know that Pakistan and China have a strategic relationship, but now with them accepting Sikkim, the opening of the Nathu La Pass, things are changing rapidly. Both countries are pushing their energy interests very aggressively. China has moved into Latin America and Africa, and we have also moved in and wish to bid together as well. We have deals in Nigeria, Ecuador has offered us oilfields and Venezuela and Brazil as well. We have also prepared a strategy paper on Africa and Latin America.

ARITHRO GANGULY: So is the Iran gas pipeline on the backburner

We havent put it on the backburner. The Iranian President and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had a phone conversation where they decided to give officials a certain amount of time to deliver. I then met Iranian Foreign Minister Mutakki and we reaffirmed our commitment. Now, we need a viable, acceptable agreement. They decided to renegotiate the pricing agreement. We are keen to get cooperation from Iran.

MANINI CHATTERJEE: What is our position on Nepal now And on the role of the UN there

Our Nepal policy is clear. We had two simple points. One, the restoration of the democratic process and the restoration of a parliamentary, civilian, representative government. We are not against the Maoists, we welcome their coming into the democratic fold, though they will have to give up arms when they do that. We see a role for the UN limited to the decommissioning of weapons. They dont need mediation, the seven-party alliance and the Maoists are competent to talk to each other without mediation. It sometimes appears that in Nepal it would fall apart but they get talking again. A major shift is taking place, all this is part of the shift. Track I and Track II, both kinds of diplomacy, are taking place. The political leadership, our Left leaders are talking to their leadership, and members of our civil society are also in touch with their counterparts in Nepal.

We should come to terms with the ground realities in Nepal. We have deep cultural bonds, a longstanding relationship between the political leadership of both countries. We are mainly concerned about the economic recovery of Nepal.

SHANTANU DATTA: Do you worry about the Red Corridor in India getting a boost if the Maoists come to power

I dont see that happening in Nepal. What is important is their participation in the political process and their disarmament. The people of Nepal will decide who would come to power. And that would require free and fair elections where people are able to vote fearlessly. And for these criteria, the withdrawal of arms is a must.

PAMELA PHILIPOSE: Many in Bhutan and Nepal see their treaties with India as unequal. Are you concerned about that

Bhutan has no issues with us. Different people have different perceptions. But when we met (Nepal) PM Koirala, he did not say anything about this.

MANINI CHATTERJEE: When will the vaccum of a Cabinet Minister in your ministry get filled

It has been very hectic. The past eight months have seen so many ministerial visits and delegations and we have been able to cope. Just this last week, there was a pincer attack on us, and would agree that the PM and I did carry the day. After all, even Pandit Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Narasimha Rao, all were their own foreign ministers, and for several years.

ABHAY MISHRA: The Pakistani High Commissioner is on record saying that India does not give any concrete evidence of terror there.

They know the names and organisations we have been naming, the same organisations have been acted upon. We have given them details of camps. They have been given complete dossiers. They are in denial. The problem is that we have a foreign policy, the Pakistanis only have an India policy. India is their obsession.

JAYANTH JACOB: What is our policy towards Sri Lanka

The situation is worrisome. The ceasefire is now collapsing. When the ceasefire is not accompanied by a political process, it is difficult to hold. We are clear that Sri Lankas territorial integrity has to be maintained, but also that the ethnic issue has to be addressed. We are not offering to do it ourselves, as one of the parties, the LTTE, is banned in India and several other countries. We support the Norway process, and are encouraging a solution. Their foreign minister has met me thrice.

MAITRYEE HANDIQUE: Arent we shrill in our response to Pakistan sometimes

No. Imagine if the NDA government was there and something like the Mumbai blasts had taken place. They had a million men at the borders with just the attack on Parliament. More people died because of the troop mobilisation. We werent shrill at all. We were measured and balanced in our response.

RUCHIKA TALWAR: The recent round of expulsions and counter-expulsions between India and Pakistan... isnt it a bit like Tom and Jerry

Well, diplomacy between sovereign states is like that. When someone is expelled, a person of equivalent status in the other country is immediately expelled. At least we didnt tie his hands, blindfold him and beat him up.

SEEMA CHISHTI: What is more fun, defending the Congress, or Indias foreign policy

I enjoyed the Congress spokesmans role, it kept me on my toes, I had to address all issues and I learnt a lot at the time. But defending our country, hoisting the tricolour is the greatest honour for an Indian.