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PM briefs BJP leaders on foreign policy
T.R. Ramachandran
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, January 2
Midway through the Congress-led UPA government's five-year term at the Centre, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took the initiative in the New Year of inviting BJP leaders for consultations, primarily on foreign policy issues, in the wake of the major Opposition party's intense criticism pertaining to the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal.

Even though Dr Singh had told the winter session of Parliament during the debate on the Indo-US deal on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy that the Opposition was indulging in scaremongering and that the country's "nuclear swaraj" would be maintained, Leader of the Opposition L.K. Advani insisted that the UPA government had "systematically eroded India's strategic autonomy as well as foreign policy interests”.

After the Hyde Act had been signed by US President George W. Bush, the Prime Minister had spoken to him over the telephone and made it clear that India still had some concerns which needed to be addressed.

The luncheon meeting hosted by Dr Singh was attended by a former Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Mr Advani, Mr Jaswant Singh and Mr Brajesh Mishra to apprise them of the government's various foreign policy initiatives.

A brief official statement issued after the interface stated that "the Prime Minister invited leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party - Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Mr L.K. Advani, Mr Jaswant Singh and Mr Brajesh Mishra - to lunch today. The External Affairs Minister, Mr Pranab Mukherjee, briefed them on the situation in India's neighbourhood and India's relations with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka."

In keeping with convention, the BJP refused to offer any comment, stressing that it was for the government to issue a statement.

National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan and Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon were also present at the meeting.

It is apparent the government believes that as has been the practice since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, the effort has been to pursue a consensual approach on foreign policy matters. The BJP, however, remained critical that the Manmohan Singh government has not been able to evolve a broad national consensus which has resulted in the "obnoxious" Hyde Act.

The exercise undertaken by the Prime Minister to hold consultations with all political parties and groups, including the Left which is supporting the government from outside, is aimed at clearing the air about any misgivings or apprehensions. This assumes significance as preparations are under way for negotiating the bilateral 123 agreement to operationalise the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal.

Dr Singh had made it clear in Parliament that there was still some ground to traverse and if the 123 agreement was not in keeping with the July 18, 2005, joint agreement reached in Washington with Mr Bush and the March 2006 understanding pertaining to the separation plan, then the deal would be off.

The Prime Minister was categoric that there would be no compromise on India’s strategic programme. The government’s concerns relate to assurances of fuel supplies, restriction on fissile material production and transfer of enrichment technology.

The US President has expressed optimism that India’s existing concerns will be addressed in the next stage of negotiations.

Considering the blow-hot, blow-cold relations between India and Pakistan, the current state of engagement between the two neighbours is also believed to have figured in the discussions. Mr Mukherjee will be visiting Islamabad in the middle of this month to invite the leadership for the Saarc Summit to be held in April. Mr Mukherjee will be calling on Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and have an interface with his counterpart Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri.

The BJP leaders were also briefed about the talks with China, developments in Iran and Iraq following the hanging of Saddam Hussein. The BJP has been seeking clarification on all these issues as also the role that New Delhi is playing in the country’s neighbourhood in putting the bilateral ties on an even keel.

Interestingly, the Left parties, which had objections to the Indo-US nuclear deal, sought to adopt a wait-and-watch approach when the issue was debated in both Houses of Parliament. Their demand that the agreement with the US should be discussed before it is signed was rejected by Mr Mukherjee.

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