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The Rediff Interview/K Natwar Singh

June 20, 2003

When Rajiv Gandhi handpicked a career diplomat and gave him a Congress ticket to contest the 1984 general election, Kunwar Natwar Singh, scion of the Bharatpur, Rajasthan, royal family justified his mentor's confidence by winning his very first election.

His expertise in foreign affairs saw him become minister of state for external affairs in the Rajiv Gandhi government. Subsequently, when the Congress lost power at the Centre, it was inevitable that Congress President Sonia Gandhi chose Singh as chairman of the All India Congress Committee's foreign cell.

In this exclusive interview to Chief Correspondent Tara Shankar Sahay, Singh, a member of the Rajya Sabha, discussed the US request for sending Indian peacekeeping forces to Iraq.

What do you think about the Vajpayee government's initial handling of the issue regarding sending Indian peacekeeping forces to Iraq?

They could have handled it better. Along with Soniaji, we met Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at his residence after he invited us to discuss the issue. We suggested that they should at least consult the immediate neighbours of Iraq and also countries like Russia, China, France, Germany and Canada.

We wanted to know whether these countries were also sending any troops to Iraq. They were not. So the prime minister told us that no decision had been taken on sending our peacekeeping forces and they wanted to consult [these countries]. We said fine.

Mrs Gandhi had made her position clear in her letter to the prime minister on June 4 saying that there was some uncertainty and confusion, and would the government please clarify the matter.

The Congress and India's stand has been that if our troops have to go to any other country or any other theatre of war, it has to be under the aegis of the United Nations and we have no objection. But since our troops were not going under the UN aegis, they would be serving under the Anglo-American authority who are occupied powers.

Do you subscribe to the recent theory that the Americans want to entice Indian participation with peacekeeping troops in Iraq by dangling various carrots?

I don't think that a great country like India should consider any such thing. I am confident that the government will not do any such thing.

Do you agree with some criticism in the media that India's foreign policy has suffered because of glaring shortcomings?

The classic example is our relations with Pakistan. A number of positions have been changed suddenly without any rationale. Mr Vajpayee went to Lahore, we welcomed it. When he came back from Lahore, his external affairs minister said this was a defining moment in Indo-Pak relations, and we had Kargil after four months.

Indira Gandhi signed the Simla Agreement on July 2, 1972 and there was peace between the two countries for 37 years. Then, they (the government) said we will not talk (to Pakistan) till cross-border terrorism from across the border stops. Then the government had a ceasefire and the Congress gave its broad support.

Then suddenly they invited General Pervez Musharraf to Agra and we also supported the move. Now Mr Vajpayee himself concedes that both Lahore and Agra were failures but others in the government claim that they were great successes. We disagreed and asked them what did they achieve? Then after the terrorist attack on Parliament, they again said they would not talk to Pakistan. We asked why.

Our view is that the diplomatic window should be kept open otherwise how can you proceed further?

Then on April 14, Vajpayeeji was in Sikkim where he said until cross border terrorism stopped, India would not talk to Pakistan. Two days later, he was in Srinagar and said that he was extending his hand of friendship to Pakistan, and we welcomed it.

There is no consistency. Two days ago, the prime minister said Pakistan should get ready for a fourth defeat. He should decide what he wants, friendship or war with Pakistan. He should make up his mind.

Also, take his statement that there has been a paradigm change in American attitude towards India and Pakistan. The American attitude towards Pakistan has not changed one bit. The US will not look at Pakistan through Indian eyes. It will look at Pakistan through American eyes. There is this talk of F-16s being given to Pakistan. Musharraf is in Camp David, let us see what more does he get.

Do you agree that the recent utterances from Washington indicate that the US is going to target Iran next?

I have heard various noises but I hope better sense will prevail.

What do you think about Defence Intelligence Chief Lieutenant General K Davar's recent statement that Al Qaeda terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir pose a grave threat to India?

I think they are a threat everywhere. From Bali in Indonesia to Beirut to Morocco to the US and Europe, they seem to be omnipresent. They are there in Chechnya in Russia, the Talibanisation of Al Qaeda has been in Xinjiang in China too.

What would be your solution for the Kashmir dispute?

I think paragraph VI of the Simla Agreement signed between Indira Gandhi and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto clearly says that the two countries can discuss every bilateral problem including a final solution of the J&K issue. For that, both parties will have
to sit down.

What is your assessment of India's handling of its immediate neighbours other than Pakistan?

We had some strains in our relations with Nepal after the hijacking of the Indian Airlines aircraft but things are better now. Our relations with Bangladesh too are not friction-free. We have to be conscious of the fact that all big countries
face this problem of smaller neighbours being suspicious of the giant entity. So every government in India has to be sensitive to allaying the apprehensions of its neighbours. This is a common problem with large countries like the US, Russia, Brazil, China.

Talking about China, do you think the 'fire-breathing' dragon continues to be India's main adversary in the region?

No, I don't think so. There is a school of thought which is propagating this view and it is a dangerous point of view. I think in the last 2,000 years you had one conflict with China. And after Rajiv Gandhi's visit in 1988 and the subsequent one by P
V Narasimha Rao, our relations with China are on an even keel. We have trade worth billions of dollars and the two countries are getting closer. I think our relations will be further strengthened when Prime Minister Vajpayee goes to China.

How do you appraise former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh and present incumbent Yashwant Sinha?

I wouldn't like to comment. Both of them are my friends.

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