A book published on the eve of India’s general election tries to explain the enigma of Manmohan Singh, who became the country’s weakest prime minister to serve two full terms. The electorate’s verdict on his tenure has been a crushing defeat for the Congress party.
In ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’, Sanjaya Baru, who was Dr Singh’s media adviser in his first four years, describes how the Congress leader’s reputation plunged in the second term, in which he ignored corruption scandals and presided over a rudderless administration. He depicts Singh as a leader who failed to take charge, surrendering his authority to Sonia Gandhi in an increasingly dysfunctional arrangement.
Insightful as Baru’s account is of Singh’s “disturbingly steep” descent, the part of his book that will interest Pakistani readers more is where he recounts the Congress government’s relations with Pakistan. This focuses on Singh’s backchannel diplomacy with former President Pervez Musharraf to promote a ‘Kashmir peace formula’. Among other things, Baru reveals how the Congress party was divided over Singh’s Pakistan policy.
More significant is the disclosure that while Singh wanted to find a solution to the Siachen dispute, opposition from his army chief and senior colleagues, scuttled any prospects for this. Baru recalls that after a backchannel meeting between the special envoys of the two countries, Singh visited the Siachen Glacier in June 2005, where he purposively declared that Siachen should be ‘a mountain of peace’ and not conflict.
The statement followed Singh’s consultation with retired army generals who had commanded troops in the world’s highest battle ground, “all of whom supported his decision to find a final solution to Siachen”, says Baru. But he faced resistance from his two defence ministers, first Pranab Mukharjee (now President of India) and then AK Antony, who were either echoing or in agreement with the military establishment’s hardline view.
Serving Indian Generals were “not willing to trust Pakistan on a deal”, writes Baru. The army chief General JJ Singh, acted in a duplicitous way. “In close-door briefings, the General would say that a deal with Pakistan was doable, but in public he would back Antony when the defence minister chose not to back the PM”. Baru is uncertain of what lay behind Antony’s “hawkish stance”, but his account makes clear how efforts were thwarted to solve the dispute.
This confirms what Islamabad has long claimed – that the obstacle in resolving Siachen has been India’s defense establishment, which has weighed in at critical moments to sabotage any agreement between the two countries.
Although General JJ Singh rejected Baru’s charge against him, his rejoinder to the book actually confirmed that the military’s hard line proved to be the impediment. He said the military advised the government that “unless Pakistan authenticated troop positions, both on the ground and maps, there was no question of any withdrawal.” This advice was given with the full knowledge that the pre-condition for authentication-before-withdrawal would be totally unacceptable to Pakistan.
A quick rundown of the history of negotiations will help to put this in perspective. But before that, a word about the election of another former army chief, General VK Singh on a BJP ticket to the Lok Sabha – a development that has gone unnoticed in Pakistan. In an interview in 2012 when he was army chief, VK Singh publicly ridiculed Manmohan Singh’s ‘mountain of peace’ idea, saying, “We should not succumb to bouts of thinking about peace mountains”.
Significantly, he said this ahead of the June 2012 round of talks with Pakistan, and in the wake of the avalanche tragedy that claimed the lives of 139 Pakistani soldiers and civilians at the glacier. At the time, VK Singh also dismissed then army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s call for demilitarisation of the Siachen glacier and “peaceful resolution” of all disputes.
Describing this as “nothing new”, General VK Singh ruled out any drawdown by the Indian army while gratuitously adding, “All of Jammu and Kashmir belongs to India”. With these views, Singh, now a member of India’s ruling party, is hardly likely to advocate a solution of Siachen.
Last month, in fact, marked thirty years since the dispute began. In April 1984, India illegally occupied key peaks in a major airborne operation named ‘Meghdoot’. A failure of intelligence meant that Pakistan discovered this and despatched troops only to find Indian forces occupying almost all high ground positions along the Saltoro range.
Pakistan’s efforts to dislodge the Indians did not succeed. Over time both sides came to deploy more soldiers and establish more posts in one of the world’s most inhospitable regions, initially seen by both countries to lack any strategic value.
Diplomatic efforts to address the problem followed soon after the first clashes. Thirteen rounds of talks between defence officials subsequently took place, the last one in June 2012. The history of talks on the issue shows how India backtracked on the initial agreement and then kept hardening its position.
In the fifth “breakthrough” round in June 1989, agreement was reached and reflected in the joint statement of 17 June. This outlined the principal elements of a settlement: redeployment of forces, avoidance of the use of force and determination of future positions on the ground in conformity with the Simla agreement. The agreement was made possible in the improved atmosphere of relations brought about by prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi. Both reaffirmed this agreement when Rajiv visited Islamabad in July 1989.
But a settlement proved elusive when India went back on the 1989 agreement and then tried to change the terms for an accord, mainly under pressure from its military. As Baru’s account now attests, the defence services continued to oppose a pullout from Siachen.
When Pakistan tried in the sixth round of talks in November 1992 to discuss implementation of the 1989 agreement, the Indian side insisted on ‘complete’ authentication of ‘current positions’ before redeployment and sought to reopen previously settled issues.
‘Authentication’ became a sticking point in all subsequent rounds and the reason for the deadlock. The 1989 agreement made no mention of marking ‘current positions’. Pakistan rejected authentication because a) it meant legitimising an illegal act and b) provided India the basis for a legal claim in negotiations later to delineate the area beyond NJ 9842 on the Line of Control – which was left undermarcated by the 1949 and 1972 ceasefire agreements, but was in Pakistan’s administrative control since the mid-70s.
In the November 1992 talks, Pakistan showed flexibility by offering to record ‘present’ positions in an annexure to the agreement, so long as this did not become the basis for a legal claim on the area by India later. But India insisted on ‘complete authentication’.
In recent years a ‘China rationale’ has been marshaled out by several former Indian officials. They have argued that if India did not retain the Saltoro ridge, a ‘Pakistan-China axis’ would bring the Karakorum Pass under its control and jeapordise Ladakh’s security. Any Indian withdrawal would facilitate Pakistan’s access across Saltoro to the Karakorum Pass and therefore needed to be avoided.
Consequently, Pakistan saw further hardening in India’s position in the last two rounds of talks, in May 2011 and June 2012. Delhi insisted on steps that reversed the sequence it earlier agreed to, ie disengagement and moving outside the zone of conflict followed by talks on demarcation.
Both rounds ended in impasse, with India insisting on authentication and demarcation of present positions on the ground and on the map, and for demilitarization and ‘future positions’ to be determined later. Also rejected was Pakistan’s effort to bridge differences on sequencing the steps needed for demilitarisation by the offer to simultaneously take steps desired by each side.
However unedifying this diplomatic history, it should not deter future efforts to settle a dispute that has exacted such a high human and material price. But the question is will the new government in Delhi be interested in solving this issue? And will it be able to overcome opposition from its defence forces?
The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK. Twitter: @LodhiMaleeha. This article first appeared in The News International, a leading Pakistani newspaper.