Dissonant voices

Print edition : June 19, 1999

A CERTAIN propensity for indiscretion in his utterances has landed Defence Minister George Fernandes in many a controversy. At times it has even had the effect of souring India's relations with friendly countries and undone years of patient diplomacy, as happened in April and May 1998 with Sino-Indian relations.

Yet, on June 10, at a press conference convened to disclose the Samata Party's electoral strategy, Fernandes was uncharacteristically reticent even when newspersons pressed him for details on the situation in Kargil. He told mediapersons that they would find answers to their queries at the regular briefings by the Army. At a time when the authorities had placed restrictions on the movement of journalists in the conflict zone in Kargil, it appeared that crisis managers in the ruling coalition had thought it fit to place similar curbs on Fernandes to keep him from shooting his mouth off. Evidently, elements within the ruling coalition felt that some of Fernandes' utterances ever since the situation worsened in Kargil had dented the government's image. Th e government had come under trenchant criticism for speaking in many voices on the Kargil dispute and of lacking cohesion in its prounouncements and actions.

On May 28, Fernandes seemed to exonerate Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of involvement in the infiltration of Pakistani irregulars and troops into the Kargil area. The bizarre claim was unsubstantiat ed, and in fact shown to be wrong when the BJP-led government released transcripts of a tele-conversation between two top officers of the Pakistan Army. Subsequently, Fernandes made an offer of "safe passage" for the infiltrators to enable them to return to the Pakistani side of the Line of Control. At a time when the Indian Army was suffering casualties in seeking to regain the Pakistani-held positions, his unilateral statement, which was seen as an indication of the government's willingness to conside r a non-military solution, only served to undermine the morale of the defence forces.

Following a barrage of criticism, Fernandes denied that he had exonerated Nawaz Sharif and the ISI of involvement in Kargil. He said that the entire Pakistani establishment was involved, but he reiterated his theory that it was the Pakistan Army which ca lled the shots. And even his offer of "safe passage" for the infiltrators was a hypothetical one, he said: if Pakistan asked for it, it would be considered. Clearly sensing the need to change tack, he said:"Those who have been pushed into our country by Pakistan have to go back, dead or alive." The government's official spokesperson too denied that the government was considering a ''safe passage'' offer.

Fernandes received flak also when he led a team of Army officers to brief the BJP National Executive meeting on the Kargil issue. The move has been criticised on the ground that it violated the convention of keeping the defence forces entirely free of po litical association.

Significantly, the government secured the unstinting support of all Opposition parties, despite their reservations about its initial handling of the infiltration and the political and intelligence failure that led to the crisis in the first place. The ru ling coalition, however, was evidently incapable of exhibiting unity in thought and action. A meeting of the National Democratic Alliance, which comprises the BJP and its allies, helped to rein in Fernandes for a while but it was not long before he was f iring away again.

Even as External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh was preparing to convey to Pakistan Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz the country's outrage at the torture, murder and disfiguring of six Indian soldiers by the Pakistan Army, Fernandes declared that India "will reply at all levels" to the barbaric treatment of the soldiers.

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