NEW DELHI: Indian and Pakistani leaders have fought and made up and fought again. India’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the hero of Lahore, but he was also the author of a nuclear standoff with Pakistan. Gen Pervez Musharraf was the villain of Kargil but he evolved into a tragedy-bound peacenik in Agra. Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto hit it off nicely. But Gandhi was the first to send the troops into the Siachen Glacier.
Prime minister Manmohan Singh has had a good equation with everyone from Pakistan he has dealt with. A new book has thrown light on how close he was to sorting out the Siachen mess.
It's well-known that Dr Singh was very keen to convert Siachen into “a mountain of peace” after visiting the forbidding glacial heights in June 2005. But the Indian defence establishment was equally adamant that Pakistan would have to first authenticate the relative troop positions before any withdrawal from the Siachen Glacier-Saltoro Ridge.
Indian soldiers, after all, controlled almost all the dominating heights, ranging from 16,000 to 22,000-feet, on the Saltoro Ridge region. But with Pakistan unwilling to give ironclad guarantees on existing troop positions, the PM's dream slowly ebbed away and perished.
The PM's media adviser during UPA-I, Sanjaya Baru, has now set the cat among the pigeons by holding that Manmohan Singh's peace initiative for the world's highest and coldest battlefield was effectively torpedoed by the “hawkish” position of defence minister A.K. Antony, as also his predecessor Pranab Mukherjee, as well as the then Army chief General J.J. Singh.
“I was never sure whether Antony's hawkish stance was because he genuinely disagreed with the Siachen initiative or whether he was merely toeing a Nehru-Gandhi family line that would not allow Dr Singh to be the one finally normalising relations with Pakistan. After all, the Kashmir problem had its roots in Nehru's policies ... I felt Sonia would want to wait till Rahul became PM so that he could claim credit,” writes Baru, in his new book “The Accidental Prime Minister”.
Both Mukerjee and Antony, as successive defence ministers in UPA-I, were not enthusiastic about a deal on Siachen, though Sonia had “blessed"” the peace formula. Moreover, the PM also had to contend with “a declining quality” in military leadership. “In closed-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,” says Baru.
Gen Singh, who was the army chief from 2005 to 2007 and Arunachal Pradesh governor till last year, hit back on Saturday. “What does he (Baru) know? What are his qualifications to pass such sweeping judgements and make disparaging statements on the military leadership? Does he have any idea what leadership is all about?” said Gen Singh, talking to TOI.
Dismissing Baru's knowledge of classified matters, Gen Singh said the military had given “perfectly sound advice” to the PM on the Siachen imbroglio. “We said unless Pakistan authenticates the troop positions, both on the ground and maps, there was no question of any withdrawal,” the former army chief said.
And even if Pakistan agreed to this pre-condition, the disengagement and demilitarisation of the Siachen could only be done in a phased manner. “If Pakistan tried to indulge in some misadventure (to take the heights), the response and reaction time of our troops would have to be factored in. I am happy India's continues with the same stand,” said Gen Singh.
Whatever be the truth of the matter, it will not surprise anyone if Pakistan misses Manmohan Singh a lot in the days to come.