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May 29, 1999
Opposition guns for Fernandes over foot-in-the-mouth ailment
George Iype in New Delhi
Amidst the continuing air-strikes to flush out Pakistan-backed militants from the Kargil sector, Defence Minister George Fernandes has turned out to be an acute embarrassment for the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.
As the government tries hard to seek political support and national consensus for its bold step in Kashmir, ruling alliance partners and opposition parties blasted the defence minister on Saturday for making "irresponsible statements".
Fernandes, on Friday, had given a clear chit to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief and the Inter Services Intelligence, stating that the current tension in Kashmir was solely the handiwork of the Pakistan army.
But the defence minister's statement contradicts intelligence reports with the home ministry in the past six months which said the ISI has been actively engaged in pushing in foreign mercenaries along the entire route of the Line of Control.
Vajpayee, who chaired a meeting of all-party leaders on Saturday morning, received whole-hearted support from the Opposition to continue the purge of militants in the Kargil sector.
But the prime minister came under attack and criticism for the government's failure to detect the large-scale infiltration by armed Muslim guerrillas from Pakistan into northern Kashmir and for not restraining his defence minister from making irresponsible remarks.
"We have pledged our unconditional support to the Vajpayee government on the action in Kashmir because there are no two opinions on national security, territorial integrity and sovereignty," Congress leader Natwar Singh said.
But he said the Opposition's biggest worry is now "persons like Fernandes, who are making irresponsible statements when the Indian armed forces are engaged in a serious conflict in Kashmir."
"Fernandes is unfit to be the defence minister of India," Singh told Rediff On The NeT, adding that when Pakistan was scheming to push the militants into Kashmir in the past six months, the defence minister has been engaged in cheap publicity rather than take care of national security.
During the all-party meeting, most Opposition leaders and a number of ruling partners raised the defence minister's statement absolving the Sharief regime and the ISI of blame for escalating the tensions in Kashmir.
They also urged the prime minister to rein in Fernandes and take charge of the Kashmir operations himself, as many said the defence minister lacked political maturity and sense of security.
Opposition leaders said instead of giving political and moral support to the Indian armed forces engaged in the conflict in Kashmir, such cheap remarks from Fernandes will only lead to demoralisation among the thousands of security personnel.
"We want to know what the defence minister was doing when militants were entering the Kashmir valley," asked Communist Party of India-Marxist general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet.
He said ministers like Fernandes who hold such important portfolios have been "extremely busy in petty politics in New Delhi when Pakistan sneaked Afghan mercenaries into Kargil."
"Therefore, it would be better if the prime minister divested Fernandes of the defence ministry before he begins to utter more nonsense," the Communist leader urged.
While the prime minister may have privately asked Fernandes to desist from making any damaging statements, official sources said the defence minister's tirade against the Pakistan army and clean chit to the ISI and the Sharief government was "a deliberate move."
Officials said by blaming the Pakistan army for escalating the crisis in Kashmir, Fernandes wanted to ensure that notwithstanding the escalating conflict in the Kargil sector, the Vajpayee government's historic Lahore Declaration remains intact.
"It is certain that the tremendous goodwill that the prime minister has earned out of his historic bus trip to Lahore will soon be lost if the current conflict continues in Kashmir. Therefore, it seems the statement from Fernandes is a strategic move to somehow save the prime minister's bus diplomacy," an official in the ministry of external affairs told Rediff On The NeT.
Though the prime minister has received overwhelming public support and political backing on his stern action in Kashmir, the MEA top brass feels the current tension could become a major setback to Vajpayee's Pakistan diplomacy, especially on the eve of the general election.
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