LONDON: Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Indian National Congress – India’s principal opposition party - has added his voice to claims that the Indian Army carried out surgical strikes on Pakistan earlier in the year, saying his party supports such action “100 percent”.
Pakistan rubbished the claim when it was originally made and duly warned international organisations, including the United Nations, that the responsibility for the “escalating crisis” would rest with New Delhi.
Talking candidly to a select group representing international governments, the business community, academia and media at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, Mr Gandhi persisted with his tendency to make controversial remarks when faced with questions requiring diplomatic sobriety.
Following his recent remarks about the reasons behind the creation of ISIS, made at Bucerius Summer School in Hamburg, which left riled many in India, the Nehru dynasty scion has now encroached on a domain traditionally occupied by militant Bharatiya Janata Party politicians by discussing India’s western neighbour.
He had angered many BJP supporters by saying: “It is very dangerous in the 21st century to exclude people… If you don't give people a vision in the 21st century, somebody else will. And that's the real risk of excluding a large number of people from the development process." Hindu nationalists took these remarks as a direct accusation against the ruling BJP for excluding tribals, Dalits and minorities from the development narrative.
The strong reaction of BJP backers may plausibly explain why Rahul Gandhi has decided he could not afford to be viewed as being soft on Pakistan, ahead of the forthcoming state assembly elections in Rajasthan. So when asked by Manoj Ladwa, the founder and CEO of India Inc., to clarify his position on the issue of the Indian Army's claimed strikes on alleged training camps inside Pakistani-administered Kashmir, Mr Gandhi was curt and concise: “The surgical strikes were carried out by the Indian Army. And we support the surgical strikes 100 percent.”
To a question by David Lyon, a former BBC journalist who now works at the King’s College London, asking whether the Modi government would be able to avail the opportunity presented by Imran Khan’s election as prime minister, the INC president said India remained unsure who to talk to in Pakistan because the country lacked institutional certainty. “Whom do you talk to in Pakistan? Pakistan, from our perspective, is a number of institutions…. so which institution would you talk to? Some of those institutions are hostile towards India. Some of those institutions are attacking India. So we are not going to talk to them.”
Employing an analogy of a state where some of the state institutions work over and above the supreme office of the prime minister, Mr Gandhi said: “If you sign a document with the prime minister of the United Kingdom, the understanding is that all institutions that make up the United Kingdom would accept the prime minister’s supremacy. That is not the case in Pakistan. It is very difficult for us to work with that sort of a situation. We are also faced with a situation that they support terrorism in our country and we have to fight that, we will fight that.”
“It’s very difficult to sign a document if you don’t know what’s going to happen the next day. It is a huge commitment, a commitment of political will," Mr Gandhi said. A classic example of that [uncertainty] is what happened with Mr Vajpayee’s case. He went there with good intentions, but the institutional cohesiveness was not there. He was saying something to the prime minister and something else was being done by the institutions. That’s the real problem. he added.
However, the Indian opposition leader was of the opinion that all doors should not be shut on a neighbour. “You keep the conversation going and wait for the time when Pakistan is able to resolve some of [its] issues, till the time Pakistan evolves a coherent structure you can talk to.”
To a question about the possibility of resolving the long-standing issue of Afghanistan and the role of regional countries therein, Mr Gandhi said: “Pakistan spends a lot to time trying to make Afghanistan unstable. But you cannot pull a solution out till the solution is ready. And I don’t think that solution is ready. For us, it is important to make sure that they can’t damage or disturb us.”
Commenting on how the Modi administration has tried to deal with India’s neighbours, Rahul Gandhi - whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather served as Indian prime ministers - spoke about the absence of a cohesive strategic policy. “India needs to base its strategy on its foundational strengths. There is no coherent strategy based on India’s strengths. I see tactical responses. I see knee-jerk reactions. There is no strategic vision, strategic response or consistency. I don’t think foreign policy can be run through ‘hug’ politics.”
Relations with Pakistan are no different, Mr Gandhi said. “The Modi government lacks a coherent strategy [on Pakistan]. It is episodic. The prime minister flies there for a wedding. There is no deeply thought out strategy. And there can be one.”
In his hour-long Q&A session, the INC president said India has been in transition for the last 70 years. “India, 70 years ago, was a country with a rigid caste hierarchy where there was no mobility, where people couldn’t aspire. India has been fighting these challenges and has been successful to a decent measure. It was a rural country locked in its villages that has been transformed using democratic principles.“
An Indian MP for 14 years, Rahul Gandhi was elected President of the Indian National Congress, India’s principal opposition party, in December 2017. He was elected as a member of the Lok Sabha (the directly-elected lower house) from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state.
The interaction at the IISS was part of an exercise undertaken by the INC president to raise his profile ahead of next year’s general elections.