Weak at home, Manmohan Singh talks tough with Pakistan
Prime Minister Manmohan may be perceived weak at home, but he held his ground abroad as he talked tough with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on the issue of terrorism after securing the full backing of the US.
At the much anticipated talks with Sharif here Sunday - both were meeting for the first time - he stuck to his guns on the issue of terrorism and securing peace on the line of control before moving on to other things.
Domestic compulsions may have indeed played some part in Manmohan not seeking what has been described as a "grand bargain" but the thinking in the Indian camp was that the the desired forward movement without peace on the LoC was not possible, analysts said. And Sharif had to agree.
The meeting, though decided long ago through track two diplomacy, was not announced beforehand lest another incident of beheading or firing on the LoC may inflame passions and lead to demands for cancellation of the meeting - as it happened after a terror attack just three days before the talks.
The meeting was sought by Nawaz Sharif and it was he who drove down to Manmohan Singh's hotel at New York Palace hotel for the meeting on a quiet Sunday morning minus the usual mad rush of the Big Apple. And they met not in the prime minister's suite but in a conference room - for a business meeting - at 10 a.m. - no time for breakfast or lunch.
Sharif, who came dressed in a blue suit greeted Manmohan dressed in a dark blue bandhgala suit with a light blue turban in Punjabi with a handshake. But there was no embrace or small talk before the two sat down for a "frank discussion" - diplomatese for serious differences.
Manmohan Singh is said to have kept his cool as his aides briefed him about a major controversy back home fanned by BJP leader Narendra Modi over Sharif's alleged remarks in an off-the-record conversation with some journalists, describing Singh as a "dehati aurat" or village woman.
And as the issue threatened to derail the talks, it was an upset Sharif who got Pakistan Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani to call up National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon to convey that he had never insulted the Indian leader.
Earlier, during Manmohan Singh's summit with President Barack Obama too, the controversy created by Congress vice president Rahul Gandi's remarks about the "non-sense" ordinance to protect convicted politicians, did not affect the talks one whit.
He won Obama's full backing "eliminating terrorist safe havens and infrastructure, and disrupting terrorist networks" including Pakistan-based terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and a call to bring perpetrators of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks to book.
In addition, the two nations managed to seal the first commercial deal for setting up nuclear plants in Gujarat under the landmark civil nuclear deal, considered Manmohan Singh's crowning achievement, in the face of yet another controversy over dilution of India's tough nuclear liability law.
But as he headed home after his six-day sojourn abroad, things may not be that rosy on the horizon, what with challenges ranging from a troubled economy, a strident opposition and a change from the party's young guard putting question marks over his continuance.
(Arun Kumar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Posted on 30-09-2013)