Friday 9 August 2013

Defence Minister Antony & ‘Indian way’ (PO)

MD Nalapat

Friday, August 09, 2013 - In her wisdom, Congress President Sonia Gandhi chose a known pacifist, Arecaparambil Kurian Antony, to be the Defense Minister of India. Throughout his life, Antony has been a voluble votary of non-violence, and it is no secret that he shares with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a desire to avoid war. Interestingly, after then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee was elected the President of India a year ago, it is Antony who was chosen by Sonia Gandhi to be the Number Two in the Union Cabinet.

The mild-mannered Defense Minister is also known to be a favourite of Congress Vice-Preesident and Heir Apparent Rahul Gandhi. Both mother and son have chosen Antony to be one of their top two political advisers as well, together with the Political Advisor to the Congress President, Ahmed Patel (who is considered in Delhi to be much more powerful than Manmohan Singh in that when the PM asks a minister to get something done,the request may or may not get complied with. On the other hand, when Ahmed Patel asks a minister to get something done, it almost always is. In all matters relating to the working of the Congress Party, decisions get taken by Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Ahmled Patel, A K Antony and Ambika Soni, another favourite of mother and son. Indeed, Ambika Soni has been a formidable presence in Delhi for the past thirty years. During 1976-80,she was the confidant of then PM Indira Gandhi and son Sanjay Gandhi, exactly the way she is so very close to Sonia and Rahul these days, together with A K Antony, who spends almost as much time on political matters as in the running of the Defense Ministry. Indeed, so busy was Antony with politics as usual that neither he or any of his ministerial colleagues spared the time needed to attend the solemn function in Delhi airport when the bodies of the soldiers were sent to their homes in different states’

Since the period when she was in the UK as a young lady. Sonia Gandhi has always had friends from Pakistan, whose charm and wit have ensured that some of these Pakistani friends remained close for decades.

She knew that in Manmohan Singh she had chosen a PM who would be ready to walk an extra hundred miles in order to try and ensure peace with Pakistan. Thereafter, by choosing a Defense Minister who has been a 100% Gandhian ( following both Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi with zeal, except during 1977-80 when he opposed the latter) all his

life, both the Congress President as well as the Prime Minister knew that Antony would fully back their policy of seeking peace with Pakistan. It is clear from the events of August 6 that Antony has sought to fulfill their wishes. The Defense Minister has in effect destroyed his own political career by stating publicly that the killing of five Indian soldiers that day in a region near the Line of Control was done by individuals “in the uniform of the Pakistan army”, which is very different from saying that the action was carried out by the army itself. So strong is the public anger at the killings that the Defense Minister’s mild statement (and the complete lack of a statement from the PM) has resulted in public opinion turning against him as an individual who lacks the fire needed to head the Defense Ministry. Several commentators have placed the blame for Antony’s statement on the killings on the PM. However, others say that the mildness of the response was because of signals from Washington.

Experience has shown that no matter how grave the terror attack or the number of soldiers killed, each US administration has always called on India to “show restraint”, a course of action exactly the opposite of what they themselves do in such instances. Indeed, the only instance when the US had responded in what may be described as an “Indian manner” to a provocation was its complete lack of an effective response to the murder at Benghazi of its ambassador. Ironically, Christopher Stevens was killed by the same groups that he had empowered and backed just two years previously to bring down the Kaddafy regime. That Washington has as much influence over Delhi since Manmohan Singh became PM in 2004 as London had over India’s capital city during the British Raj is a perception widely shared within the country. The Obama administration is very particular that there should be talks between India and Pakistan. The killing of five soldiers has the potential to create an ugly public mood sufficient to make it politically hazardous for Manmohan Singh to listen to the Obama administration and enter into detailed talks with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The fierce reaction to the Defense Minister’s low-key statement has probably been responsible for Prime Minister Singh to keep silent about the episode rather than stand by his minister.

Apart from statements or the temporary suspension of talks, the Manmohan Singh government has no other way of responding to actions seen as provocative. Fortunately for the Congress Party, the BJP-led government of Atal Behari Vajpayee had the same policy as Manmohan Singh, of symbolic (and futile) gestures rather than military action.

The swirl of anger that this longstanding “Indian Way” of responding has created within the country opens the way for a future government to respond in a manner that the US administration disapproves of. Both within the military as well as in the public, there has been a hardening of views regarding talks with Pakistan. Should Manmohan Singh ignore these trends and meet Nawaz Sharif in New York, his party is likely to face a very hostile reaction back home.

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