THE JOB profile of the Union home minister has never included the word “ diplomacy”. Palaniappan Chidambaram knows it better than any of his predecessors, including that old hawk Lal Kishen Advani. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided to send Chidambaram to Pakistan to do some plain speaking to his counterpart, Rehman Malik, the idea was to convey the message that henceforth, at least as far as Indo- Pak ties were concerned, domestic politics would dictate diplomacy.
After the fiasco of foreign minister S. M. Krishna’s Islamabad visit last week, in hindsight, it appears that whoever advised Manmohan Singh to draft Chidambaram in the new diplomatic offensive must be an expert in innovative disruptions. After all, never before has a visit by the home minister preceded that of the foreign minister as part of confidence building measures. North and South Blocks stand barely 100 metres apart on the Capital’s Raisina Hill, but it appears that the disconnect between the two imperial era buildings that house the foreign and home offices is too wide.
Dealing with a hostile and ever unpredictable neighbour like Pakistan would tax the most suave of diplomats. Seasoned foreign office mandarins have told me that to be part of a dialogue team with Pakistan is akin to inviting distress.
This was quite evident last week when officers on either side of Rajpath were engaged in blame game for the disastrous visit of foreign minister Krishna to Pakistan. Bureaucratic turf fights are nothing new but at issue now is the conflict between diplomacy and domestic politics which is now fodder for the media.
Chidambaram’s trip to Islamabad was disruptive innovation at its best, aimed at bypassing the conventional dialogue mechanism which was stuck in the past.
The home minister landed in the Pakistan capital with a mandate from the government to address the concerns of the home constituency. What he told them was bitter, yet true, of the clear involvement of their defence officials in the many terror attacks on India, particularly 26/ 11.
These weren’t just dossiers compiled by the investigating agencies but revelations made by David Headley to Indian investigators in the presence of FBI officers in Washington. Chidambaram’s plainspeak had put the Pakistan establishment on the defensive and interior minister Malik was condescending enough to tweet that “ Chidambaram was a very intelligent politician”. It was widely believed that Chidambaram’s triumphant return to New Delhi would be followed by a final assault on the Pakistan establishment.
So were home secretary G. K. Pillai’s comments on the day G. K. Pillai when Krishna was to leave for Pakistan part of the disruptive agenda?
Shortly before Krishna arrived in Islamabad, the Indian media quoted Pillai saying that from the confessions of Headley, it was clear that Pakistan’s ISI was behind the 26/ 11 attack. His remarks are now said to be the reason for the talks getting stalled even before they could begin.
Back in India, a red- faced Krishna says that everything Pillai said was right, but its timing was the reason the talks failed.
Pillai, an upright civil servant whom any bureaucracy would be eager to embrace, is now said to be so downbeat that he contemplates putting in his papers.
Why didn’t the mandarins in the foreign office pick up the signal — that his exercise was meant to bring Pakistan back to the unfinished agenda of the home minister’s visit? But our diplomats refused to pick up the signals. They converted Krishna’s visit into just another aimless bilateral engagement.
It gave Pakistan a chance to pay back by disrupting the conventional dialogue. Pakistan foreign minister S. M. Qureshi even questioned Krishna’s authority to take decisions. Krishna’s humiliation was complete.
It is the first time that there have been two high profile ministerial visits to Pakistan. It is also the first time it has led to domestic political crises of such magnitude and divided the cabinet and the bureaucracy right down the middle.
The decision to send Chidambaram to Islamabad cannot be faulted and is among the boldest and most innovative steps that this government has taken. But it failed because one side kept up the pressure while the other preferred the status quo.
At the SAARC heads’ meeting in Bhutan a couple of months ago, the prime minister, in hindsight it appears, rather unwisely said that we will continue to talk no matter what happens.
The foreign office seems to have adopted that credo and chooses to walk the talk all the time, unmindful of the vast quantities of yolk that accumulates on its face.