Parliamentary history will probably register as a mere irritating footnote the furore over the defence minister&’s controversial statements on the killing of Indian soldiers in Poonch. Military history would record it more negatively, for it would be naive for AK Antony and the UPA at large to write off the matter as merely an Opposition bid to corner the government over a blatant blunder. A more authentic indicator of public reaction, the military community in particular, would be the refusal of one of the five martyrs to accept the financial relief on offer.
There would be considerable public endorsement of her demand for retaliatory action to deter Pakistan from repeating what happened on the LOC, for the killings in January have gone unanswered. Maybe such jingoism is to be discouraged, but what is likely to remain irksome is the impression that the defence minister has allowed to spread that the deaths of soldiers does not generate adequate angst on Raisina Hill. It is not just that the gentle tenor of the minister&’s words, or that his non-authoritative body language does not “fit” the image expected of the head of nation&’s security effort. His functioning has come up short too. Indeed there are many in the security community who opine that his personal articulation of an admittedly “soft” policy is what has resulted in increasingly aggressive postures being taken by those on the other side of disputed frontiers.
In the immediate context, his initially insipid account of the Poonch killings was perceived as buckling to the diplomatic pressure not to risk complicating efforts to revive the stalled dialogue with Pakistan: that perception will be only marginally altered by the subsequent “clarification” because everyone knows under what pressure it was made. There is no reassurance of a commitment to stand by the soldier, or rectify the bloomer at Sharm-el-Sheikh.
Antony came to South Block with a reputation for cleanliness. Maybe his personal integrity remains intact, but he has failed to check the rampant kickbacks in military purchases ~ be it of weaponry or foodstuffs. His penchant for ordering inquiries has only resulted in stalling programmes for modernisation and re-equipment. Similarly, he has failed to inspire discipline in the forces (recall the clashes in Samba and Leh), and the manner in which the former army chief conducted himself confirmed that the minister&’s writ simply did not run.
Antony is also immune to public sentiment ~ toeing the Army line on AFSPA despite just about everyone else demanding it be scrapped. Why, even when he was making the statement over which he has been severely mauled he seemed oblivious to the action being taken by Youth Congress activists at the Pakistan High Commission with the obvious approval of the party supremo.
There has been a distinct change in Iran’s policy towards the USA and the nuclear programme in the larger context, if the new President, Hassan Rouhani’s statement on the twin issues is any indication. In a critical departure from his predecessor Ahmadinejad’s belligerence, he has suggested "direct talks" with the USA and perhaps still more crucially, with a measure of "openness". Whether or not the idea fructifies, the proposal would have been inconceivable till a few months ago. He has, however, been as diplomatic as he could be; he has stopped short of spelling out the details of Iran’s approach consequent to the recent change of guard, but has made it explicit that Washington would be expected to take the first step towards resuming negotiations.
President Rouhani has conveyed the unmistakable impression that he is more accommodating than his predecessor. He has tried to effect a delicate balance between the imperative to "defend the people&’s rights and at the same time remove the concerns of the other party. What matters to us is a practical response from the US government, not statements.” While further comment must await the unfolding of developments, it is more than obvious that he has lobbed the ball to a court across the Atlantic, hoping that America will now take the initiative to break the impasse. On the face of it, the change of stance is to be welcomed as it relates to the most serious international issue confronting Iran and geopolitics.
Significant no less is President Rouhani’s implicit reference to Israel as he repeatedly mentioned what he called “warmongering pressure groups that are confusing the White House". This definitely is a counter-blast to the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s description of Mr Rouhani as a "wolf in sheep’s clothing". The Iranian President’s repeated mention of direct negotiations with the United States makes it obvious that the country is no longer ideologically opposed to such talks; it needs to be underlined that for more than three decades the subject was a political taboo.
The sanctions have had a crippling effect on Iran’s economy, and America’s immediate reaction doesn’t quite inspire optimism. Having effected a change in stance, President Rouhani ought also to acknowledge that Iran has violated Security Council resolutions, calling for a halt to uranium enrichment. A forward movement cannot be expected any time soon.