N. Ram

'Iran has not closed this chapter; coercive diplomacy is not the way'

Fighting terrorism, a long haulFor de-escalation of tensions in Middle East Scope for dialogue with China, Russia on energy security

New Delhi: How will terrorism be tackled? Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was asked at the press conference on board Air India One bringing him back home from St. Petersburg. "Well," he responded, "it's not a one-day process. It's a long haul. We have to operate at certain levels. We have to strengthen our intelligence-gathering machinery and also, I think, we must simultaneously make every effort to ensure that disaster management is given greater emphasis in our thought processes. So that if such happenings do take place, we are fully equipped to handle the consequences."

Asked if any significance should be read into the term `war on terror,' which had recently entered his vocabulary, Dr. Singh said: "It was an enormous tragedy in Mumbai [nearly] 200 innocent men, women, and children losing their lives, 800 wounded. I think this was an onslaught which had to be met, will be met will full force, with full determination."

Dr. Singh was asked if the Iran nuclear issue figured in the discussions at St. Petersburg. His answer was: "I think there was expectation that the Iranians would respond constructively and I don't think one can say we have heard the last words. President [Thabo] Mbeki sent his Foreign Minister to Iran last month and she brought back the message that the Iranians regard the EU and P5 offer as a serious offer, and that they need time to prepare their internal leadership to evolve a broad consensus. Of course they also said it would not help matters if the matter were to go to the Security Council. But from what President Mbeki told us at lunch, probably dialogue still offers tremendous potential."

What message would he convey to the Iranian Foreign Minister during his visit to India?

"I think the message is that it is the interest of everybody that this problem should be resolved through dialogue, discussion. I think the whole world community needs that assurance that instead of coercive diplomacy dialogue, discussion should be given prominence. As I mentioned, from what President Mbeki told me, it appears the Iranians have not closed this chapter. They need some time. It's a new leadership. There are various elements in their own administration. They want to evolve a broad-based consensus."

Asked about the current crisis in West Asia, Dr. Singh limited himself to the observation that he "sincerely hope[d] that everyone will work for de-escalation of tensions in the Middle East."

To a question on what the Government proposed to do on the amended Office of Profit Bill, the Prime Minister responded: "Well, in due course of time, we will go to Parliament. First of all, the President has sent a message. We will discuss the constitutional provision, what it is. Parliament will discuss the President's message and the Bill will be debated in Parliament."

Would the Bill be retained in the same form or would some changes be made? "We haven't had a meeting of the Cabinet on this issue. In a day or two, we will settle that issue."

Asked if the country would have a full-fledged Foreign Minister in the near future, the Prime Minister responded: "Hopefully." Pressed further, he said this could happen "at any time."

Had any decision been taken on continuing the trilateral format of meetings between Russia, China, and India? "No dates have been fixed," answered Dr. Singh, "but it was a very constructive meeting. We are three neighbouring countries and the issues which we discussed were very concrete issues. Russia is one of the major producers of energy. China and India are major consumers. Russians want stability and predictability of demand. We want predictability and stability of supply. Therefore there is scope for meaningful dialogue on energy security."

What was the response from international leaders in St. Petersburg when he advocated the candidacy of Shashi Tharoor for the position of U.N. Secretary-General? And how did he assess the chances of success of India's candidate? Dr. Singh's somewhat elaborate and frank answer was: "Well, I wouldn't say that it's going to be an easy fight. But we believe it is the turn of Asia to have a Secretary-General; and another chance will come for an Asian candidate after 40 years. Therefore we thought it important to put India's candidature before the world. India has an outstanding candidate; he has tremendous experience in matters relating to dealing with refugees, matters relating to peace-keeping. So we feel that having been a part of the U.N. system for nearly 30 years, he is best qualified to preside over the reform of the United Nations. He has outstanding credentials and therefore we are happy to put his name as our candidate. Everybody felt that there was no doubt about the high credentials of our candidate whoever I talked to. I think people know him, he's a known entity. But quite honestly, I cannot say as of now that we have that job in our pocket!"

More In: Today's Paper