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'The bottomline is that these mosquito bites from Pakistan must stop'
ó Salman Khurshid, Minister for External Affairs
by Raj Chengappa

It has barely been five months since Salman Khurshid took over as Indiaís External Affairs Minister. But his tenure has been an eventful one ó be it handling the Italian marine crisis, the human rights imbroglio with Sri Lanka or hosting a lame-duck Pakistan Prime Minister for lunch. There has never been a dull moment for Khurshid, who has taken to the portfolio with aplomb. He is articulate, accessible and speaks with refreshing candour on major issues, as he did when he sat down for an exclusive interview with Raj Chengappa, Editor-in-Chief, The Tribune Group of Newspapers, at his Delhi residence on Sunday morning. The following is the full text of the interview:

On the recent vote in the UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Council) there is criticism from experts that India had always dealt with Sri Lanka bilaterally on issues that concerned us but we are now resorting to multi-lateral means. As an example they cite the recent vote by India in favour of the US resolution and a similar one last year calling for devolution of powers to the Tamils and an inquiry into human rights violations by the Sri Lankan army. Isnít India compromising its foreign policy approach in many ways?

Interesting, that you should ask this question. I have had a lot of people within the political establishment in India saying that why we are not doing what we should be doing which is seeking amendments to the resolution or bringing your own resolution saying that there should be a credible independent international investigation. The closest we came to this was saying that the independent and credible investigation that must take place should be to the satisfaction of the international community. We even suggested to the US that this be taken on as an amendment but within the parameters and dynamics of the body of that nature. They felt that it would have disturbed the consensus that they had been able to get together over a long period and, therefore, they did not agree to our suggestion. Now why is all this a departure from Indiaís foreign policy?

The fact that we are moving away from the bilateral approach.  Does it mean that we have a diminishing clout with Lanka?

Fortunately, whatever we have said multilaterally is what we are saying to Sri Lanka directly. The 13th amendment was the bilateral agreement between India and Sri Lanka that there was a commitment given to India because Sri Lanka felt that it was necessary to give that commitment and we certainly desire that commitment.  We do believe to this date and that is what can ultimately guarantee sustainable peace in Sri Lanka and there has to be sustainable peace in Sri Lanka. It is good for them and itís obviously necessary for us. But it must be within the sovereign rights of the Sri Lankan state.

We are supporting their sovereign rights. But the world is changing, you canít now live in isolation, you have to have much greater interactivity but the principles of Panchsheel, non-interference, sovereign rights ó those principles we are not violating. I think you might say that we are improving upon those principles without remaining blind and unaffected by issues that are obviously of much larger concern than those limited to one country or relationships between two countries.

China and Pakistan abstained from voting at the UNHRC. Since we have a bilateral dialogue with Sri Lanka, why did we feel it necessary to vote at an international forum like the UNHRC?

We could have voted against it or abstainedÖ I think it is important that India takes on board the intensity of feeling in Tamil Nadu. You canít overlook that entirely. Though that should not shape your foreign policy entirely, yet that canít be something that you must not factor into your foreign policy.

Foreign policy is not an extract principle but your assessment and your understanding that this is what is in our supreme national interest and you push that national interest. Now, national interest will always remain static is not true, but it will change dramatically unless there is a cataclysmic revolution. I would imagine that something like that could not be true either but ultimately the issue has to find the right balance between domestic aspirations and our outlook about the whole world. I think we have been able to do that. We have not shifted dramatically from a time-tested consensus in the country as a whole and at the same time we have not been negligent or completely insensitive to concerns in Tamil Nadu; some of which may be exaggerated but some of them are honest concerns and things that we can see have been felt deeply by the people of Tamil Nadu.

Why did the DMK move out then? It feels that India has tried to put its weight behind the resolution.

Frankly, this was their call. The world sees India as having made a very determined effort to both appeal to Sri Lanka and to add to the world view as far as the human rights issue was concerned. So it canít be that we were wrong in both places or that we were wrong in not doing enough as far as the DMK was concerned. We have done a lot more than the thirteen countriesÖ many of which are Asian countries that have very good relations with us. It is for them to see what we were doing was unacceptable or wrong and yet for the DMK to think that we were doing nothing at all to such an extent that they have walked out from our coalition. So I think this is something for them to explain.

Right now it may appear that we owe explanations to the people in Tamil Nadu, but frankly, I think as tempers calm down, as the dust settles and clarity prevails, people will ask them why you are not admitting the extent to which the Government of India has, as you said, redefined some of its positions but tried to address the aspirations of the people of Tamil Nadu and we are not going to shy away from saying this. Fortunately, and I hope that this will remain true, our compulsions and the principles of the stand that we have taken have been understood by Sri Lanka. I sincerely hope that it hasnít impacted our relations with them and I hope to show in the next few months that this has been the case.

There was a perception that before the DMK turned the heat that India tried to dilute the amendments?

How can you dilute anything when there are 47 countries in the UNHRC? Is the United States dictated to by India or a lackey of it? We are all equal partners; everyone knows what Indiaís world view is. The United States tested the waters, they talked to everybody, they talked to 46 other countries and in order to talk to 46 countries they have to draft a resolution, they circulated that draft. Perhaps itís something they ultimately wanted to achieve, perhaps many European countries would have insisted on this, so they circulated the draft, talked to everybody and finally came up with a revised draft, obviously intended to bring a larger number of people in support of the resolution. They were 24 last year, and they have been able to increase to 25. We were giving the impression that they were hoping to get past 30, but they didnít. The nay sayers were reduced from 15 to 13. The abstentions remained the same, so they have to judge frankly. We did provide our inputs, and our inputs were provided once again when we thought that some tightening could be done.

What about the perception that India started pushing for strong amendments once pressure started to mount? Why couldnít we do a lot in this regard much earlier?

We couldnít, because the draft resolution came only 24 hours before we suggested to the US that they should, in fact, change it further. So, whoever is talking about this does not seem to know how the UN system works. You parley, you lobby. Sri Lanka was talking to the US, and whoever is applauding the US for its efforts should also tell us why Sri Lanka was talking to the Americans because that is how the UN system works. You talk to everybody.

What about the bilateral thrust getting Sri Lanka to get them to do what we want.

That will continue

Are you now going to depend on a multilateral forum to continually put pressure on Sri Lanka?

Where is the question of pressure? This is our standard articulated position with them. Every time we need Sri Lankans, we raise it amongst many other issues and we raise it as a very prominent issue. We are saying there is something that we need to do together and which we are doing together. We are building 50,000 houses to rehabilitate them. If you are building 50,000 houses for someone, you have the right to say that when we were doing so much for you then what about you? It is better that you start delivering something, and particularly deliver those things that you have promised us.

Which things?

The devolution of power under the 13th Amendment plus. And the other thing is accountability. Now there is an LLRC and their recommendations have to be implemented. Then as we talk about 13th plus, we can talk of LLRC plus. We can look on further issues of accountability of sanctions against those people who are found after appropriate adjudication to be responsible for human right violations.

How much the government has weakened as a result of the DMK pulling out, whether in domestic stability or in the ability to make foreign policy?

No problem for foreign policy becomes easier when you have fewer numbers in your alliance because you are not answerable to anybody but stability of the domestic polity and the government. If some people withdraw and others donít join you as normally they could then obviously in the number game you look weaker then you would otherwise. But the way things are shaping up, I wouldnít say at this stage that there has been any serious concern as far as the stability of the government is concerned. I donít think anybody wants early elections, we would certainly want an early election. We are planning out programmes that are far reaching and important legislation. So unless this is are forced upon us, we wouldnít want to have an early election.

Coming to the Italian marine crisis, Italyís major reason for keeping the marines back was that they believed that they should be tried either by the International Court or by their own domestic process.  What was the problem with that?

The problem was that our courts said no, we can only go by what our court says about jurisdiction. Our courts, including the Supreme Court, said prima facie the jurisdiction does exist, it does not exist in the state government of Kerala, but it exists in the Central Government to appoint a special court to try this matter. But they have also left open that the court that tries this matter can examine the jurisdiction issue in its entirety and then finally come to a conclusion whether the full trial is permissible or not.  Thatís the Supreme Court judgement ó we accepted it and so did Italy.

So why did the problem arise?

They have a larger stated position about international tribunals and international disputes; but within the largest stated position, they accepted the pronouncement and the judgement of our Supreme Court because they are party to it. And then subsequently, relying upon that very judgement and their being party to it and accepting the jurisdiction of the court, they then sought permission to leave, having come back once under permission that was given by the High Court. This time they sought permission from the Supreme Court and they were given permission against an affidavit that their Ambassador gave. Frankly, what is our fault in it? Itís the assessment they made which is the submission to the jurisdiction that they did, we did not force anything on them and in view of that they were allowed to go to Italy for four weeks. That is the judgement of the court and we should all respect this judgement. Then they were advised presumably that they did not have to come back, we persuaded them that it was wrong.

Did we give them guarantees and that is why they came back?

We have given them a clarification in writing. They asked us whether the marines will be arrested on their arrival in India, we said no, because they were supposed to arrive by the midnight of March 22, and if they arrived before that then they were complying with the Supreme Court orders. So what could we arrest them for? And the other issue was: would they be subjected to death penalty? We said no, because our understanding of the Indian law is that this is not the Ďrarest of rareí case as we understand from all Supreme Court judgements and, therefore, there is no apprehension of death penalty. It was a clarification, we are in no position to give guarantees and then as an abundant precaution we ran this by the Attorney General and then gave a written clarification. We have also written to the Attorney General to make all this available to the court when it reopens on April 2. 

What was the turning point that caused Italy to relent?

I am only going by what they have told me. They said that there were concerned about the death penalty and I know that all of Europe is concerned about it. When we seek extradition, we give guarantees that there will be no death penalty. We do that. We already have an Abu Salem case pending in the Supreme Court, this issue has a reason, and there are two views between what we are trying to do and what stance their Supreme Court has taken. So this is something that we are aware of. Just 24 hours before the deadline for the marines return was to end, they returned. They asked us for these clarifications and we gave them immediately.

So you look upon this as a success of Indian diplomacy and that you were able to avert a nasty situation?

Yes, it could have become very, very difficult because there were the competing claims ó one of domestic law and one of the Vienna Convention and to be put through that very tough test of which way you should tilt is something that was avoided by timely and far-sighted decision of the Italian government. I think there is no reason why we shouldnít appreciate that and acknowledge it. 

You had lunch with the Pakistani Prime Minister recently in Jaipur when he came to India. Why didnít the Indian Prime Minister invite him to Delhi for lunch?

Look at the kind of reactions to my having lunch with him ó it would have been much worse if the Prime Minister had had lunch with him. He was on a private visit and not on an official visit. If the India Prime Minister had hosted a lunch for him, it would have been a special gesture. He wasnít coming to Delhi at all and if he had to come then his visit would have been much longer. He just had enough time to go and pay obeisance at the Ajmer Dargah. He had to land in Jaipur and take helicopter to Ajmer. So there was an obvious moment to have lunch. Whoever, had to show a courtesy to him could have done it. It could have been the Governor, who incidentally was not in Jaipur that day. It could have been the Chief Minister or the Foreign Minister. We took a call that it would be appropriate for the Foreign Minister to go. So I went there, had lunch with him and came back.

Did India know well in advance about his visit or was it at a short notice?

To tell you the truth, it must have done over a period of a week. There was not much time and we kept it quiet, because otherwise we would have had six days of television debate on it. I knew about it and I knew I had to go, so I rescheduled my programme and went there to be with the Pakistan PM.

Why couldnít the Prime Minister host a lunch for him even if he didnít want to discuss Indo-Pak relations with him?

If the Prime Minister had hosted a lunch for him then it would have been an extra special gesture, whereas mine was a routine gesture. The PM giving him lunch could not have been in Jaipur. He would have to come to Delhi. Coming to the Capital has it own feel and implications and arriving in Jaipur would have been another matter. At the end of the day, you do what is best under the circumstances. Thatís what we did. A lot of people didnít like it, but we did what was appropriate under the circumstances. It was a courtesy.

Did you discuss relations between India and Pakistan?

We kept mostly to general topics. We talked about Sufism, music and food. But I did ask the Prime Minister if he had a vision for the relationship between India and Pakistan. We didnít go into specifics. I just asked him about a broad vision as anyone would over a meal. He then expanded on that. He talked a lot about it. Then I asked him what he was saying, which was obviously very positive in articulation, was only a position of his party or was it acceptable across the board in Pakistan politics. He said everyone shares his views and that Pakistan was changing, particularly the younger generation.

What was the sum and substance of his position?

He was talking of the larger world view ó that we have to work together as the economic compulsion and the aspirations of the young generation ó going far beyond the problems in which psychological sense has been routed in Pakistan in the past. He was just talking of a broader view of a younger generation that is looking for different things from what their ancestors were looking for.

Did you raise any of Indiaís concerns with him?

No, this was a spiritual visit and I made it very clear that we didnít want to raise the issues we had. Words are not the only things that you require to convey feelings. These things are understood instinctively by people at that level. You donít have to take him through the alphabets all over again. I had made it clear that we were extending a courtesy for the spiritual visit. Therefore, my discussions hovered over spiritual issues more than politics.

How do you see the situation with the elections coming and a new leadership emerging?

It is difficult to tell what will happen. Obviously, a clear majority is unlikely and we will have to wait and watch.

So Indiaís dialogue with Pakistan is almost dead? 

I would not say it is dead or in a coma. I will say it has gone very sleepy.

When a new government in Pakistan takes charge in May, what does India expect it to do?

One, we have to go beyond the irritants as these serve little purpose. The irritant on the LoC, for instance, I donít think it served any purpose. If someone thinks it served an electoral purpose, they were probably barking up the wrong tree. Two, we still do not know whether it is lack of conviction on their part, whoever is in the civilian government, or the lack of capacity to deliver on all those things that we want them to deliver in terms of the safety and security of our citizens. The bottom line is this that these mosquito bites must stop.

You would call the attacks mosquito bites?

Well, I think we are too powerful a country. We should not undermine our own strength and our own stature by reducing ourselves to that. I donít think it is more than very itchy mosquito bites. India is not going to be pushed and shoved by a mosquito bite. And they donít have the ability to go further, the world wouldnít allow them to. And we are too powerful to go further. I think it is important that we get beyond the pranks and tricks of the past and make a serious effort to take forward the investment that both countries have made in the peace initiative.

You heard about passing a resolution on the Afzal Guru issue and bringing his body back, what do you think about this?

Frankly, by doing so what did they achieve? I think there are some people stuck in a groove in the past. Personally, I think it is a complete and utter waste of time for them. But if they do such things, we need to give a suitable replyÖ and we gave a suitable reply.

Do we expect any changes in our relationship with China with a new leadership taking over?

The signals that they have given us are very good. So far we have not had any eyeball-to-eyeball contact. But our Prime Minister developed a very good working relationship with the previous Chinese government.  We have been given to understand that there is going to be continuity and enhancement of the relationship.  We are very happy with that and we will reciprocate it. The good thing is the fundamental understanding that difficult issues will not keep us away from moving forward on areas of convergence. It is already articulated by them, by us and by the new Government in China and we reiterate that as well.

The new Chinese President talked of the border issue being difficult to solve. Whatís your view on this?

I donít know if it is difficult to solve. If one thinks about it, it is very easy to solve and it is also difficult to solve. Right now since we are in the process of solving it and not insisting on a particular timeline, itís fine it is not something that is going to distract us.

There are reports of China assisting Pakistan with regard to its nuclear programme. Doesnít this bother us?

It does bother us, but this will only be addressed when our relations with China improve. If the total atmosphere and the backdrop improves, I think, these issues will get diluted automatically. I donít think you can put this high on the agenda and try and talk about it. Because if you do that it will become like the border issue and everything else will get relegated and we wonít move forward. I think as the total picture changes, this will change by itself. But we factor this and keep it in mind. It is not something that we should shut our eyes to. We are concerned but we will not allow the concern to derail the positive relationship that has developed between China and us.

Even Sri Lanka is trying to play the China card with us?

I think it is a mistake when one thinks that it has the exclusive rights in our region. In fact, nobody has exclusive rights in the region. We should rely on the charm and attractiveness of relations with India rather than the perceived exclusive fiefdom. Whoever harbours the latter is like Alice in Wonderland.

Moving to another trouble zone ó Afghanistan and regional security. With the US pullout in a yearís time, what is likely to happen?

I donít know. This is a huge imponderable. Despite interactions with the Afghanistan President and my own visits and discussions with senior ministers of Kabul, a lot of positive engagements, tremendous amount of investments in infrastructure and opportunities for young generations, journalists coming here and going there, senior members of the legislature from Kabul coming here to train for parliamentary procedures, what will happen post-2014 in Afghanistan is imponderable. We donít know about this.

We keep telling Afghanistan that India wants to be part of a solution and not part of the problem. We have said we are not entirely excited by the American idea that they should talk to Taliban; we know that they will have to talk to Taliban because they are their citizens and they have to talk. But distinguishing between good and bad Taliban or Taliban and Al-Qaida is not something that comes to us naturally. But if it is an Afghan-driven exercise and the redlines that the world agreed too with Afghanistan remain, then I guess it is the best thing that they can do.

What kind of Afghanistan we would like to see in 2014?

We donít know who will be the Presidential candidates in the next election. President Karzai has repeatedly said the Constitution needs to be observed and he would not stay and has to go. President Karzai has a larger-than-life presence but will there be someone who would follow in his footsteps, is still the big question. We donít have clear answers; nobody seems to have them, we need to know more as things develop. I think we will have to wait for a while before we will know exactly what will happen.

In our relations with the US, there seems to be some kind of cooling recently. What needs to be done?

We have to get back and start talking again. There was no cooling but there was a pause because they were pre-occupied with campaigns, with the new government, with the fiscal cliff etc. But now we will have a visit by the new Secretary of State and I will also pay a visit. Our Prime Minister will engage with their President and in the next few months, you will see things back in action. The export of natural gas is an issue that we have to settle quickly. There are many issues relating to cooperation with their industry and our agencies with regard to the nuclear deal that need to be worked out. We are in touch with them and the high-level intensity of exchanges will resume.

Any big bang developments expected during Barack Obamaís second term as President and the UPAís second stint?

For us it is a consolidation term. For him it is a legacy term.  I donít think there are legacies to be hunted here in the second term; there are legacies to be hunted in the Middle East or somewhere else. But consolidation is very important. President Obamaís time and energy will be sought by India to consolidate a relationship that, we believe, has come a long way and has become very stable and I think that all the beginnings we have made must be taken further. Thatís what we will try to do.

Chuck Hagel, the new Defence Secretary, had made a derogatory statement about our involvement in Afghanistan. Will you ask him to correct the impression?

We should live in the present and not the past. I look forward to meeting him and beginning a fresh chapter in a positive way.

With Bangladesh we still have not fully addressed the land-border issue or agreed on water sharing of the Teesta?

No worries on that. We are working on the land-border issue. We will introduce it in Parliament after the current recess.  There are a few odds and ends that we need to explain to some MPs from Assam. I think we have got it tied up pretty well. I hope there will be a consensual passing of this historic land boundary Bill; it will be a tribute to Indiaís lasting relationship with Bangladesh and will be one of the high points of our foreign policy. As regards Teesta, it does not involve anybody except West Bengal. We will take up the Teesta issue once the land boundary issue is sorted out.

What is your world view now that you have been almost five months in the saddle?

The world is waiting for us, the world wants to engage with us, the world wants to be friendly with us, the world wants to be our partner in prosperity and the world admires India in many ways. Only one who can spoil all this is India itself. So my appeal to all our political parties and sections of our society is that we have a lot of things that we disagree upon in our country and that happens in our emerging, growing and maturing democracy, but we have been lucky because throughout we have had a consensus on foreign policy and that has given us moral standing in the world far, far beyond this strength that we have both in terms of economy and military prowess. 

What are your guiding principles while dealing with foreign policy?

A right mix of principle and pragmatism where principle is not given a go-by. I think this is what India has always done and that is what India should do. National interest idea is something that you cannot dispute but you can dispute what is national interest. You canít question national interest being paramount in the foreign policy and what is national interest cannot defined by one small section of our society.

Are you enjoying the job of being a Foreign Minister or would you have preferred being the Law Minister?

I am quite happy. I think itís a challenging job and I am supported exceptionally well by outstanding team of our professionals and really proud of the Indian Foreign Service. We can do a lot more for them, as they do a lot for the country. I think Iím lucky that Iím able to work with them.

Has it changed the way you do things?

It has calmed me down a lot.

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