Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday refuted charges that India was under U.S. pressure on holding talks with Pakistan, and said the Obama administration had not changed its policy on the issue.

The Prime Minister's rebuttal came in the form of interventions in the Lok Sabha on more than two occasions, taking on and pushing on the back foot BJP leader L.K. Advani, during a discussion on the motion of thanks to the President's address to Parliament. On February 22 Mr. Advani sought to corner the government on this issue and the controversy over “one rank, one pension” for retired personnel of the armed forces.

Dr. Singh expressed distress that Mr. Advani was seeking “to use the debate to sow seeds” and stressed that what he was attributing to Mr. Obama was certainly not true. “During my numerous discussions with President Obama, he has unambiguously said that there is no change in the U.S. policy towards India and Pakistan.”

The Prime Minister sought to set the record straight after Mr. Advani alleged that the official-level talks between Delhi and Islamabad were the outcome of a changed U.S. policy on India-Pakistan relations, underscoring that Mr. Obama in his presidential campaign speeches had stressed resolving the Kashmir issue.

Mr. Advani said the U.S. changed its policy under Mr. Obama unlike the George Bush dispensation, which had sought to keep its hands off the issue unless the two countries sought its intervention.

Three questions

The Prime Minister was equally emphatic in taking the wind out of Mr. Advani's sails on the issue of engaging Pakistan in “secret” talks over Kashmir.

“I want to ask you one question. How many times did Jaswant Singh [External Affairs Minister in the BJP-led NDA regime] hold talks with Strobe Talbott [former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State]? Was Parliament kept informed of the number of meetings the two held? Why then are you expecting me to answer hypothetical questions?”

Almost the entire Congress bench had taken exception to Mr. Advani's remark. Its president Sonia Gandhi's gesture was suggestive of supporting Minister of State for Coal Shriprakash Jaiswal's demand that Mr. Advani's observations be expunged from the records as they questioned the Prime Minister's integrity.

Pushed to the walls, Mr. Advani said, “If there is no substance in it, I'll be happy.” He, however, added that neither the country nor Parliament could be taken for granted.

Mr. Advani warned of an agitation if the government sought to compromise on the Kashmir issue and any attempt was made to go back to the pre-1953 status for Jammu and Kashmir, underscoring that it did not permit imposition of President's rule and would also render the State beyond the control of the Supreme Court. The BJP leader also opposed the present initiative of holding talks with Pakistan.

Earlier too, Dr. Singh interrupted Mr. Advani on the issue of “one rank, one pension” in the armed forces. He went on to stress that statements that what had been promised was not delivered would not “in any way create a rift between the services and the government.” “Whatever had been stated in the budget proposals had been implemented.”

Mr. Advani pleaded that he was not trying to create any rift and said if the proposals had been implemented, he would only be too pleased. But, he said, he did not get this impression from what had been conveyed to him by ex-servicemen.

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