Quiet diplomacy worked with Italy; PM might still visit Pakistan: Salman Khurshid (Interview)

New Delhi, April 4 (IANS) External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid has said the Indian government’s “quiet diplomacy” stood vindicated in the row with Italy and worked in taking a balanced line on Sri Lanka despite pressure to take a far tougher stance. He also maintained that Prime Manmohan Singh might still go to Pakistan if he had a “sense of comfort” that such a visit will result in a “substantive engagement” and “delivery”.

He said the government was confident of accomplishing both the Land Boundary Agreement and the Teesta water treaty with Bangladesh before the next Indian elections. “We are not going to let them down,” Khurshid told IANS in an exclusive interview at his South Block office.

In the course of his 30-minute interview, Khurshid answered a range of questions about India’s international relations and challenges to its foreign policy and the ambitious agenda he had set for himself in the five months he has been in charge of the weighty external affairs ministry.

He also disclosed that Manmohan Singh was likely to go China this year and a high-level Chinese visit will also follow.

According to Khurshid, India would not rather be a “great power” but be a “great country”; and what was often criticised as a “soft foreign policy” was, in his opinion, a pretty “unique” style of diplomacy that “helps us score and it helps us keep a profile that is applauded”.

He called the situation in the Korean Peninsula “worrying”, and said India felt that North Korea “should be careful” and not cross the “red lines”.

“We certainly don’t want them to go nuclear,” Khurshid said and added that India saw “no point (in they) propelling themselves towards war again”.

The minister agreed that the traditional political consensus on foreign policy may be breaking down as some states and political parties may be taking “very strident positions” on some issues. But he rejected the notion of any of them wielding a veto on foreign policy.

He challenged any perception that the government was weak and was allowing itself to be bullied, saying “perception is not to be decided finally by the 9’o clock news”.

“Perception has to be decided by a much wider outreach amongst people who take international relations seriously,” Khurshid affirmed.

” I think leadership is about getting tough when the going gets tough,” Khurshid said.

Excerpts from the interview:

On Italy: Obviously there was a serious issue. But it is strange that for our so-called diplomatic failure, the Italian foreign minister has quit. I think all the commentators who have been saying this is India’s failure should now review their position. If there was India’s failure, I would have quit, isn’t it and not the Italian foreign minister? (Laughs)

(Now) Courts will take care of it, courts will decide (the issue of the marines). We have clarified what the law of the land is and they, I think, very sagaciously have understood this. I respect them for this, I respect them for understanding the Indian system.

On Sri Lanka: They (some political parties and interest groups) wanted (us) to go much further… Tamil Nadu assembly has passed a resolution, they wanted us to do the same thing at the UN, but we didn’t do it. We took the risk and we took the responsibility of going only as far as we thought was the right thing to do, and I think, I believe, there is an appreciation of this in Sri Lanka.

On Pakistan: The PM wants to go, but he believes that not just for Pakistan, he believes that for every place, visits have to be substantive, visits have to deliver. And we hadn’t reached in our assessment, we hadn’t reached that level of substantive delivery that would have justified PM’s visit. It’s an invitation that he has accepted, but it’s now an open question on when he thinks there is an appropriate time… Probably it is better to do a visit after the elections once the government is formed.

There is a window, but the PM will have to (have) a sense of comfort that he may have a substantive engagement that’s possible. So he’ll take a call at the appropriate time.

On Bangladesh: We are not going to let them down on anything, but we need to do it in a way that creates greater harmony in our own country. We have confidence to fulfill this ambition (on the two pending agreements) and we will before we lay down office… Our target is both, but I hope to bring the Land Boundary Agreement to parliament during the mid-half of the next session.

On China: They (at the Durban meeting between Manmohan Singh and new Chinese leader Xi Jinping) reaffirmed their relationship with India, they look forward to high-level exchanges and I think over the next few months we will see a lot happening between them and us. There is a likelihood of a high-level visit from there as well. The defence minister is going to China, I will probably go to China. So there are a lot of visits in the pipeline.

On Maldives: Maldives has its own strategic importance and is a friend of India, and we don’t want to allow that to be held hostage by one particular point of view regarding one particular incident, whether it is about GMR (cancellation of the Male airport deal) or about their political bickering. But we did make it very clear that we think that it is good for Maldives that there should be free and fair elections, and everyone should participate, everyone should have a chance, and let the best man win.

On whether India can ever be a great power: We don’t want to be a great power, we want to be a great country. And if having a strategic plan or strategic doctrine (The Economist said in a cover) makes you a power, I think then we would really be negating our very idea of nationhood. We are happy with what we are doing; we have very important strategic points of view, which is the reason why we have a strategic establishment. We have a National Security Advisor and they provide enormous value addition to our thinking. And we are quite happy with that.

On whether foreign policy consensus is breaking down: Well, it is, it is breaking down to the extent that individual states or groups and political parties are taking very strident positions… (But there is) no veto. You can’t show me one thing that we have done that we wouldn’t not have done if the so-called veto was not there. But yes, there are interests and points of view that you need to address. So you can’t just go and address international issues, you have to first address them at home and then go and address them internationally, that means double the effort…

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