Former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh who led talks with J&K separatist leadership in last decade and ran a coalition government in state with Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) from 2003-2o08 in his first exclusive interview to New Delhi based India Today, the economist turned politician, talks about PDP-BJP coalition, engagement with All Parties Hurriyat Conference and Pakistan
Q: What do you make of the situation in J&K today which has lapsed into governor’s rule?
MMS: In a way, the BJP as well as the PDP have a common responsibility for what is happening in J&K. Somehow, the central government has not been able to inspire much confidence in the people of J&K. In my view, the PDP is now increasingly conscious of the fact that what they have done with this marriage with the BJP doesn’t have the support of the ordinary Kashmiri people. They are tempted to be part of the government, but they are also worried that if they lose the people’s faith, this may be a short run affair and that in the long run it may not be beneficial to them. So I believe it is the responsibility of the central government and the BJP to create a proper atmosphere in which the PDP would have no worries in moving forward with the relationship.
Q: Mehbooba Mufti is like a daughter to you, what advice would you give her?
MMS: I don’t know what the state of the relationship is between the BJP and PDP. But I think it is in the interest of both parties, in the interest of the people of India that Kashmir should have a well-functioning government and whatever will facilitate the smooth running of the government in J&K should be done.
Q: How should the government have responded to the Hurriyat?
MMS: The point is that the Hurriyat exists, it is there. Whether it is a representative of the people of Jammu & Kashmir is a question mark; certainly we don’t recognise that it is the only entity which can deal with the problems of Jammu & Kashmir. But there is no harm in talking to them. Even the previous government, Atalji’s government, was talking to them, we were talking to them, and our stand has been that the Hurriyat, instead of talking to Pakistan, should talk to us. And therefore the sensitivity that is required to handle the relationship with Jammu & Kashmir has been missing in the Modi government.
Q: Earlier, you said the Modi government’s policy on Pakistan has been inconsistent. What do you mean by this?
MMS: Certainly, I cannot say that my government’s relationship with Pakistan was free of problems. I think the control of terror is our primary concern. And Pakistan made promises it didn’t keep. I think, in substance, the problem has not disappeared. The question is, how is the Modi government responding? Whatever your views on Pakistan, our effort was that we have to engage Pakistan. They are our neighbours. We can choose our friends, but we cannot choose our neighbours. But the Modi government has been inconsistent. It went out of its way to invite Nawaz Sharif for the prime minister’s swearing-in ceremony, which was a good move. But the advantage that should have been taken from that move did not materialise because the Modi government made it conditional that the Pakistani government could not talk to the Hurriyat, and so the talks were cancelled.
Q: Tell me about your back-channel conversation on Kashmir, which was amongst the most forthright in decades. Why did you start this conversation?
MMS: Because I have always believed that relations with neighbours have to be the primary concern of India’s policy, and on Pakistan, despite all its mischief, we have to learn how to engage with it. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But we could not simply say, especially if we believe that we are the biggest power in the region, that it’s impossible to deal with Pakistan.
Q: But what about the four-point formula on Kashmir that both sides were working on?
MMS: Former president Pervez Musharraf has written about it, but I am not saying I’m endorsing him. Yes, there were back-channel talks, and they were moving in the right direction. The objective was to normalise India-Pakistan relations. And the solution to Kashmir, it has been recognised since the Simla Conference, must be a joint effort of the two countries. Our view with regard to Jammu & Kashmir was that borders cannot be redrawn. If borders cannot be redrawn, then you must find other ways of dealing with the problem which will satisfy the people of Jammu & Kashmir as well as India and Pakistan.
Q: So what happens to the Line of Control?
MMS: The Line of Control is there, we cannot redraw the line. But through normalising the situation in J&K, we can create a situation where the line becomes practically irrelevant. As I had visualised it, the people of J&K on both sides should be able to trade with each other freely, move around freely, together deal with common areas like rivers and environment concerns and resolve common problems through a consultative mechanism where both sides would be represented.
Q: This seems to be similar to Atal Behari Vajpayee’s vision on Pakistan?
MMS: Well, I carried forward that process. I think substantial progress was made, but the Mumbai massacre created a massive handicap in taking forward that process. As for the Modi government, I cannot advise them, but they have to decide whether they want to continue to deal with Pakistan in the haphazard way they have done in the last 18 months.