9th May, 2011
I’m certainly not going to stand up in any way critical of what America did. I think if they had told Pakistan that they were going to do this thing, my conviction is that the operation would not have succeeded, Shashi Tharoor tells Parul Abrol
Would an operation similar to what the US carried out in Pakistan, to get Osama, be tolerated on Indian soil?
We would not create conditions in which an international terrorist would find refuge in our country. The Americans needed to do what they did because of the collusion and complicity of Pakistan in hiding bin Laden. A situation like this would not arrive in India. Our forces would track down someone like bin Laden hiding in India. The Americans would not have needed to get after us. They had to get after the Pakistanis because they couldn’t trust the Pakistanis not to tip off bin Laden.
As a person who was almost Secretary General to the UN, do you think it is ethical to do something like this?
Look, I’m a great respecter of sovereignty, but sovereignty also has certain obligations. If you are not willing to exercise your sovereign obligations to keep your country safe, then it is perfectly understandable for others to question if they can trust you. Look at what happened to 26/11. Pakistan is in a position where it is essentially allowing its territory, resources and, apparently, more than that to be used by people for the purpose of killing foreigners in a next door country. That is not exactly a responsible use of sovereignty.
But India does not jam their radars and go after Dawood.
No, no. We are not doing it because we have made our own calculations of what is in our interest. The feeling is that unlike America, we can’t just fly away. We are living right here in the neighbourhood and there would be consequences. To put it correctly, it would not be in our national interest. But I’m certainly not going to stand up in any way critical of what America did. I think they did the right thing. And I think if they had told Pakistan that they are going to do this thing, my conviction is that the operation would not have succeeded.
Was India tipped off about the Osama operation? If not, in as many words, why did the US ask the PMO to defer Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Afghanistan?
I have no idea.
What does this say about India-US relations?
I’m not in a position to answer that question because I’m not in the government right now. But if that is true, that they urged our Prime Minister on security grounds to adjust travel plans, that’s a very helpful and friendly thing to do. Because you know, obviously intelligence agencies in the US would always have information that we may not ourselves have. We may also have information that they don’t have. So, sharing information is always a healthy thing. But particularly when it concerns the safety and security of our leader, I think it is a wonderful thing. For example, if we got intelligence that Mr Obama is going to be in danger in a country that he is visiting, then we are duty bound to tip off the Americans and we would do so out of friendship. Whereas, if we got information regarding a country with whom our relations are perhaps not so close, then it might not be the same thing. So it’s definitely an act of friendship on the part of America.
What sort of diplomatic changes would the Osama episode trigger in our region?
If you look it purely from Indian perspective, there is a sort of gain in that this simply underscored what we have been saying for a long time. Namely, that Pakistan is clearly and actively colluding in giving shelter to terrorists. So, to that degree, there is an element of vindication of the Indian stand. Beyond that I don’t see a direct consequence for us. I certainly hope that this does not prompt the Americans to think that their job in Afghanistan is over and that they can pack up and leave. That I believe would be unfortunate because it is in our security interest to continue having a stable and safe Afghanistan.
Do you think India might ask the US to cut down aid to Pakistan?
I don’t think India will ask. We have tended not to interfere too much in that process. But I think within America, there is already a great consciousness. They already afforded $19 billion in the past 10 years to a military that has—to use the English expression ‘run with the hare and hunt with the hounds’—played it both ways. It is a particular hallmark of our Pakistani friends in the military. And I think the Americans have wised up to it. They thought it was worth paying the price when they wanted to get Osama. But I think they do need to pay that price for the logistical support they need through Pakistan. They need to move their troops in and out of Afghanistan, provide their troops with rations, fuel, rotation policy, leaves, etc. So, therefore, they need Pakistan. The truth is, in my peacekeeping days, an American general told me, ‘Amateurs discuss tactics, rank amateurs tend to discuss strategy, and true professionals discuss logistics’. Logistically they cannot provide for their soldiers without the cooperation of Pakistan. That may not change overnight but they are extremely skeptical of the Pakistani military.
You have been critical of the Bush administration after it did not support your candidacy in the UN election. What would you say about the Obama administration that has cut down visas, is keen on cutting BPO jobs and has also asked their health industry to get competitive so that Americans don’t come to India for cheaper healthcare?
We’ve always understood that any American president’s duty is to America, to American public. In all fairness we’ve always made some allowances, to any democracy, for the kind of messaging that a democratic leader would do for his country. So I don’t think there is any particular concern about certain things in Mr Obama’s speeches. What we are concerned about is how policy affects our country and when there is honest difference of opinion we’ll express it and share it. Not that we are hesitant to speak. As far as visas are concerned, our industry has been active. Nasscom is lobbying.
You have handled the Middle East when you were part of the ministry. What sort of relations do we have with them? Do we have any intelligence sharing agreements or understanding with them? Do we get information from them?
We don’t get into a public discussion about any of our intelligence sharing with anybody, so I can’t speak about that. What I can speak about is our relationship, particularly, in the Gulf and the Peninsula. They are extremely intense and they have three major pillars. We have three to four million Indians there, who are working and making money, and who are remitting some of the funds back home. They are a huge asset to us and to those countries. By and large, their record in those countries has meant that the rulers in those countries are well-disposed towards the country from where they come. The second important factor is their energy security. The countries in the Gulf and the Peninsula provide almost 70 per cent of our oil and energy imports. For us, that is extremely important to keep our economy growing. The third pillar is still underdeveloped, the investment pillar. We need, particularly from those countries that have an investable surplus, them to invest that surplus in our economy. For example, our infrastructure growth, roads, highways, power stations and so on, requires considerable amount of capital and it would be healthy for us if some of the capital came from abroad.
I’d like to move the focus a bit and ask about corruption. Are we in control here?
We have a fundamental problem, unfortunately, in corruption having spread like a virus so that it is difficult to go a week in India without encountering corruption. In some ways the big ticket corruption we read about in newspapers, is the less significant part of the human drama. To me, the biggest corruption is when a poor labour class woman, who is entitled under the law to deliver her child for free in a government hospital, has to pay bribe to get a bed or deliver her child on the floor. Or a widow who has to pay to collect her pension because the clerk wants the bribe. This kind of corruption affects people who are helpless and who cannot afford to pay the corrupt. The corruption you read about—the big deal where someone skims off a percentage—that’s bad, is an abuse of trust and must be punished, but is not a life or death issue to either the giver or the taker. Both kinds of corruption must be tackled but all our focus is on corruption that is easier to tackle rather than on the corruption that has spread into our system, where for every daily activity people are expected to pay.
As a ruling party, how can you not know what your allies do, especially when they are part of the government?
It’s naive to assume that the things that take place behind closed doors are known to everybody. Our government has a number of jobs to do and there are a number of ministries and a number of departments. If one person, say, the Prime Minister, were to be aware of every detail of every action in every ministry, I don’t think he would have the ability to do anything he does as prime minister. Why would he need a cabinet if he’s going to be fully aware of the details of every ministry?
But it’s just as naive to assume that something of this scale (2G) was going on and the government had no idea.
Well, there is a lot of debate in the government about policy. Mr Raja made his case, he’s done that in writing, saying it was the existing policy and he was going to follow and so on. Now in any government, they will give the work to a minister and they trust you to do the right thing, give a point of view and move on. That happens all the time. I imagine there is always a give and take on a policy. And we’ve seen that on the issue of the telecom scandal, there was some correspondence and some suggestions were made, which apparently were ignored. But it’s difficult to comment on an ongoing process. Let us see what the investigation comes up with.
Have you studied the Lokpal Bill? Do you support it?
I have looked at the Lokpal Bill and looked at the Jan Lokpal Bill and I think there are some significant differences, which would have to be reconciled in the committee that has been set up. So we are waiting to see what kind of compromises they come up with. I think the important thing is that we need a consensual national legislation against corruption. One that comes out of a process that engages parliamentarians, governments, civil society, media and public opinion, is very healthy.
Do you support movements like the one led by Anna Hazare?
I have a lot of respect for Mr Hazare as an individual. He is a concerned social activist. I have always felt all my life, when I was at the UN as well, that NGOs and civil society organisations have a very vital part to play in contributing to any society. Despite all that, I do think that at the end of the day law has to made and passed by the active legislators. That is the basic principle of democracy. One cannot have an argument that people who are unelected, can triumph the political authority of those who have been elected. They have authority in their own field of expertise; we should respect that, listen to them, and hold their expertise. But ultimately in a democracy, elections are the process of determining who gets to pass the laws, who gets to rule the country. If we don’t respect that, we end up on a very dangerous road.
The movement may seem to be fiercely anti-politicians but it is part of the political process.
The answer lies not in sneering at politicians, but in the educated middle class getting more involved. That is why I came into politics. I wanted to be more than an outsider.
Did Niira Radia ever approach you?
(With a loud laugh) Never called me, never met her.
What are you doing for your party right now?
I get occasional requests from the government rather than the party and I have been doing what they request. For example, I was asked by the Ministry of External Affairs to go on a couple of trips abroad for them. One for a conference in London, one to another foreign country and I was happy to do that and provide feedback to them after my trips. Similarly, I addressed a public diplomacy conference in New Delhi the MEA organised. Public diplomacy is a subject I know something about, frankly I have written about it for some time, so they asked me to keynote that meeting and open it alongside the foreign secretary and I did that. So that kind of work, particularly for my old ministry, which knows me well and I am always happy to do. But I have to say that’s barely ten per cent of my time since I left the government. The other 90 per cent I’m looking after the interests of the voters of Thiruvananthapuram.
Name of Source: Tehelka