Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Under fire, Antony to make fresh statement in Parliament - Times of India

NEW DELHI: Under all-around attack, the government is set to make a fresh statement on the killing of five Indian soldiers along the Line of Control in Jammu on Thursday that is expected to address criticism that Pakistan was let off the hook for the outrage.

The government assured BJP leaders on Wednesday evening that defence minister AK Antony will update Parliament after being briefed by Army chief Gen Bikram Singh about events leading to the death of Indian soldiers in an ambush by Pakistani intruders on Indian territory.

A BJP delegation comprising LK Advani, Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that "dilution" of an Indian Army statement by the claim that "persons dressed in Pakistan army uniforms" killed Indian troops was totally unacceptable.

The expected course correction will come in the wake of an aggressive opposition stalling Parliament to protest against the "clean chit" to Pakistan and widespread dismay in the Congress over the politically embarrassing statement that conveyed an impression that non-state actors may have carried out the killings. The row has already severely dented the prospect of the comprehensive dialogue process that the UPA government had seemed keen on before Tuesday.

PMO distances itself from Antony's statement

In the first government response to the killing of five soldiers, the defence ministry had blamed the crime on Pakistan army. However, the complicity of Pakistan's regulars found no mention in the statement that the defence minister made in Parliament, leading the BJP to insinuate that the statement was diluted because of government's keenness to save the proposed talks between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif next month in New York.

With the issue snowballing into a full-scale political embarrassment, PMO distanced itself from the alleged censoring of facts, dubbing as "mischievous" reports that Antony's statement was changed at its behest. "Such allegations are mischievous and have no basis," a PMO spokesman said. MEA also washed its hands off the matter, saying that it was not involved in vetting or "diluting" the statement of the defence ministry

But even as PMO sources denied that the statement was tweaked, they said that it was vetted by senior ministers and officials including foreign minister Salman Khurshid and national security advisor Shiv Shankar Menon besides Antony. The statement was also seen by foreign secretary Sujatha Singh, the DGMO and some defence ministry officers.

Keen to rebut the politically damaging charge of having given Pakistan an "escape route" for an incident that could not have taken place without the complicity of the Pakistan army, the government told BJP leaders that Antony's statement was based on an "evolving situation".

The PM is understood to have said that Parliament will be informed of the latest facts and the government's view point after the Army chief delivered a full and detailed report.

But that may not help government salvage the prospect of restoration of the composite dialogue process. BJP leaders made it clear to PM they will not support full-on engagement with Pakistan.

Senior sources in Congress admitted that the perception that the complicity of Pakistan army was sought to be underemphasized may have rendered prohibitive the political cost of engagement with Pakistan, especially given the approaching faceoff with the BJP in assembly elections. There was regret in the party over the "mishandling" of the issue which has resulted in an opening to BJP.

The government's propensity to get its formulation on India-Pakistan issues wrong exasperates the ruling party. There is a long history of the government's articulation on Pakistan being at cross purposes with Congress's priorities. This was evident in July 2009 when Congress refused to defend the PM and his team for signing a peace deal with Pakistan at Sharm-el Sheikh where it put Pakistan's allegations of Indian meddling in Balochistan on the bilateral table.

The party leadership prefers to tread cautiously when it comes to Pakistan: a prudence which was reflected in the decision of party president Sonia Gandhi to stay away from the lunch the government hosted for former Pakistani president Asif Zardari. "You need to step around political landmines. Here the government is stepping right onto them," said a Congress leader.

The needle of "suspicion" for the latest goof up has fallen on both MEA and PMO, who generally sign off on important documents particularly those intended for public consumption. MEA sources, refusing to come on record, categorically claimed their ministry was not involved in either "vetting" or altering the press release.

The controversy erupted after Antony stated in Parliament that "the ambush was carried out by approximately 20 heavily-armed terrorists along with persons dressed in Pakistan army uniforms''. The Army, on its part, had earlier said "the ambush was carried out by approximately 20 heavily-armed terrorists along with soldiers of Pakistan army''.

So, while Antony left a large question mark on whether Pakistan army "regulars'' were involved in the military-style ambush, the Army was convinced of their role in a planned "border action team (BAT)'' action.

PMO's denial failed to insulate itself from the attack, given that it is supposed to be in complete control of foreign policy. The clamour against Antony seemed equally directed against the PM and his establishment headed by the NSA and Khurshid.


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