Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Tactless Move

In his discussion with editors from across the country, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh unknowingly set off a diplomatic row when he said that "25% of Bangladeshis" support forces inimical to India.

Now, news reports claim that the Indian High Commissioner to Dhaka has been summoned by the Foreign Office there to explain. The PMO, meanwhile, had removed the itchy little sentence from its website. Official denials and excuses are soon to follow.

To be honest, his comment was made with the right intentions in mind (national interest, that is) but it was terribly tactless. A golden rule for diplomats is not to quantify anything... he could have said that a 'substantial' number of people support anti-India groups. Then, the term 'substantial' can be played on in case of any trouble. Sadly, our economist-PM prefers the exact, which has now landed us in a wee bit of a bother with a country that has been quite useful in rounding up Northeastern insurgents in the last few years.

Although this gaffe was in no way was meant to hurt the Bangladeshi Government, it hasn't had any desirable effect. The problem is a precedent set by Nehru himself viz., the PM controlling foreign affairs. While this should be avoided and the PM should just take the Foreign Minister post instead working as some shadow-Minister, it does not cause much damage when the PM in question has some skills in diplomacy. But then, it would be unfair to expect a PM to possess that, which is precisely why foreign affairs should be left to the MEA, which has many more seasoned diplomats at its disposal.

However, it is worth noting that the PM's comment wasn't wrong in spirit: there are indeed many groups that support anti-India activities and these groups have political leverage as well, as was clear from the strong opposition towards the transit agreement singed between the nations when the new Sheikh Hasina Government came to power. While Bangladesh's cooperation cannot be missed (and it was largely because of that that we managed to hold peaceful elections in Assam), we must remain vigilant.

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