THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW

In an interview with SIMRAN SODHI, External Affairs Minister Mr Salman Khurshid spoke about the various foreign policy issues facing the country and his views on how India plans to deal with them.

In context of the recent visit of US Secretary of State Mr John Kerry, do you feel that India&’s concerns on Afghanistan have been addressed? With talks between the US and Taliban slated to happen soon, do you feel India&’s role might get squeezed out in the process, with Pakistan getting a bigger role?
Secretary Kerry was very appreciative of India&’s role in Afghanistan, especially in the area of development. At the Press conference he addressed, he said clearly that the attempt to talk to the Taliban was essentially a conversation they want with the willing Taliban. Also, that this would be an Afghan-led process. Now, all this sounds like music to us and is just the approach we would like to have. But, at the same time, we have cause for concern and we have conveyed to him that there are red lines that the Taliban needs to adhere to.
The good thing is that Secretary Kerry said the talks with the Taliban is an experiment ~ it could work or not work. Even President Karzai wants to talk with the Taliban; this is something we have checked with him. I think there are still a lot of different ways of looking at what is happening and we would want to keep a watch. We are aware that some elements in Pakistan may want to exclude India from Afghanistan, which is, fortunately, not acceptable to others. 

Do you think investing in Karzai was a good idea?
President Karzai, if nothing else, is a bridge to the future of Afghanistan. You can walk on a bridge and say it could have been better. You can walk on a bridge and say it is not wide enough or solid enough. You can say all kinds of things, but the important thing is that it is a bridge that took Afghanistan from its state of war to where it stands today. I think it&’s not fair not to give him credit for what he has achieved.

Is there a chance President Karzai might stay on even after the elections in Afghanistan?
The Constitution doesn’t allow it. He has always said that he doesn’t want to. Periodically, there is talk that he should stay on because there is no alternative. But I have personally spoken to him, and he has always said that there is a constitutional mandate that comes to an end. But the picture ahead is still far from clear.

Would you agree with the view that the Indo-US relationship has slumped in recent years and there are no new areas of co-operation between the two countries?
I think the highs that people perceived came after long periods of lows and so the highs were perceived to be higher than they were. Similarly, when you have achieved a high point, you can’t just keep going higher and higher. You have to slow down and consolidate. There is a lot of follow up job that needs to be done. There are a lot of things under the radar that have moved forward.
But having said that, I know that there are a lot of critical things, from both sides, that need to be addressed. If we don’t address them, then a lot of things we have achieved in other fields would be undermined. Both sides have issues about trade access. There are issues about H1B visas; they have issues about the time NPCIL is taking to sign the contract; there are still talks taking place about the nuclear liability issue.
These are very, very complicated issues, given the nature of politics in their and our country. But we are on a solid ground and it will be good if we can resolve some of these issues before September, when Prime Minister Mr Manmohan Singh visits the US.

Today, India has a relationship with most major countries in the world. India also has strategic partnerships with several countries. Which would you say has been the single most challenging bilateral relationship?
By saying that this is challenging, you might give the impression that this is a problem. It&’s the effort that goes into servicing a relationship that can make the relationship challenging. And the size of the relationship, seen in context of the effort required, can make it challenging. I think in that sense, both in terms of content, in terms of size, expectation and visibility and the close scrutiny of the media, the relationship with the US is the most challenging. Having said that, I would say that if the challenges are great, the rewards are equally great.

Could you list the three most important bilateral relationships?
The question is not fair. I will tell you the areas that, for us, invite special attention. The P5 (referring to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) inevitably, also because we want to be on the Security Council and they all seem to acknowledge that one day we will be on the Security Council.
The other important focus is the region that is responsible for our energy security ~ west Asia, central Asia and Iran. We have a huge opportunity in the South-east Asia region. Europe, which is our largest trading partner, and Africa, where we have made the best of relationships, are also crucial. Each one is important in its own way, and requires attention. I also took special steps to revive links with Latin America.

The race for India&’s next foreign secretary has thrown up a debate over seniority versus merit. Your take on it.
There&’s no debate in our mind; it&’s all in the papers. I don’t think you should see seniority in isolation, you should also not see merit in isolation…seniority and merit go together. You don’t spend 30 years in the Indian Foreign Service and by some quirk of fate get to the top. And when you are on top, you have to be somebody who served in the P5 countries, somebody who served in the neighbourhood, SAARC countries, or somebody who has been at critical moments in the driving seat of policy.

Your visit to Iraq came 23 years after the last visit by an Indian minister. What would say is the reason for this long hiatus?
Iraqis think we are afraid of the violence there. I don’t see any reason why we should be afraid. There is a lot of security paraphernalia in Baghdad and I went only to Baghdad. I felt a tremendous amount of affinity when I was in Iraq, a tremendous sense of being welcome, both for me personally and for the country. I also think it&’s remarkable, the kind of willingness they have to work closely with us.

Would you say that we are moving towards Iraq because we are trying to reduce our oil dependence on Iran?
We are not reducing our dependence on Iran. Iran is our friend and we can’t say that you are a friend in trouble and we don’t want to touch you. But there is a practical difficulty ~ if there is nobody to carry the crude oil from Iran to India, no tankers are available and banks are not available, how do you get oil? But at the same time Iran knows we have taken a position in the IAEA and they know why we have taken that position.

Has it been easy balancing relations with Iran on one hand and the US on the other?
We have, haven’t we? No one has complained to us. We are developing the Chabahar port and we are not hiding it from anyone. But at the same time, we do accept the United Nations Security Council sanctions. I think it is a world of contradictions and we have to live with these contradictions and harmonise them.

In the last few weeks, the Rajapakse government has taken steps towards diluting the 13th amendment. In one of the possibly strongest statements issued by India, we expressed dismay at the steps.

Do you think the Rajapakse government will back down and not dilute the 13th amendment before elections are held to the Northern Provincial Council?
Elections will be held and that&’s a good thing. What kind of dilution takes place is something we need to study. We don’t want any kind of dilution. There is a very strong feeling in our country that there should be no dilution at all. But political life is not tranquil and there can be reasons to depart from something you have done in the past. But because it&’s a promise made to the world and to us, it&’s only fair that an attempt should be made to explain to us why they are departing from that position. And if they are departing from that position, there may be many other areas in which you can compensate. And there are a lot of areas, the LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) for instance. So if you are diluting, though we are totally against it, you could strategically compensate it in some way.

How do you view the new government in Pakistan and its desire to pursue peace? Do you trust them?
I don’t think it&’s a good way to start a relationship by saying ‘I don’t trust you’. We have to be careful in dealing with the Pakistan government, not because you have an inherent mistrust of them, but because we know they work under compulsions. Pakistan cannot change overnight. What has happened in Pakistan will not go away in one election. But nevertheless, Nawaz Sharif had very bravely said the right things during the election campaign and after taking the oath of office. We should give him a chance.