“We must reckon that at least 25 per cent of the population of Bangladesh swears by the Jamaat-e-Islami and they are very anti-Indian and they are in the clutches, many times of the ISI.” These words by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are part of the record that his office has released on his informal talks with five editors a few days ago. Why a cautious person like him should be so indiscreet is beyond me and why the PMO has uploaded this portion of talks on the Prime Minister’s website leaves me confounded.
One, the following of the Jamaat-e-Islami is not one quarter of the Bangladesh population. In the last general election, the party was routed. Two, how has the Prime Minister come to the conclusion that all members of the Jamaat-e-Islami are anti-India? They are fundamentalists, no doubt, but every fundamentalist is not anti-India. The Jamaat has justifiably protested against the remark.

I have always held that the chiefs of IB and RAW who daily brief every Prime Minister are seldom accurate in their assessment. I cannot imagine that he would have spoken about the Jamaat without their inputs. Their sources are dubious. I have had an unhappy experience of RAW and IB when I was India’s High Commissioner at London.

The entire blame comes to the PMO which released the recorded talks without listening to them beforehand or reading the transcript. The office is meant to correct the version which might carry some words of Prime Minister that he spoke at the spur of the moment. He could not have meant the remark in the way it is being taken in Bangladesh. This is the reason why he has rung up Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and why the Ministry of External Affairs has offered the Bangladesh government an apology.

In fact, the five editors who talked to him for an hour have been more discreet before the media on what the Prime Minister said. Even in their writings they have avoided anything controversial, if there was one. They were sensitive to what their writings might convey because there was no official briefing. Probably, they were conscious to avoid the criticism of the Prime Minister. The remark on the Jamaat fell in that category. The PMO realised its mistake but too late. After uploading the record of talks on the website, which remained for 30 hours, it withdrew the portion referring to the Bangladeshis. The damage was done because the Bangladeshi media had gone to town on the Prime Minister’s remark.

The Prime Minister, tense as he is these days, is obviously under pressure. He is fighting against the opposition, the dissidents within his own party and the carping of the coalition partners, some of whom are flirting with the opponents. That he said what has been attributed to him should not indicate that he is helplessly dependent on a few in his office. His only blunder is that he does not pursue his own instincts as the scandal on 2G spectrum in the Ministry of Telecommunications has proved. It is a welcome report that there will be wholesale transfers in the PMO. In fact, it needs to be pruned. Mrs Indira Gandhi expanded it unnecessarily because of the type of government she ran.

Naturally, the diplomatic circles are shocked because they do not expect such remarks coming from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who is mature and an international figure. India has a standing in the world and every word it says and the action it seeks is taken seriously, particularly least by the neighbouring countries.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is doing everything in her power to come closer to India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has himself acknowledged that “Bangladesh government has gone out of its way to help us in apprehending the anti-Indian insurgent groups which were operating from Bangladesh for a long time.” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has given the much needed transit facilities to India to reach the states in the North East more quickly than it did because the goods had to be carried on a road which ran zigzag to circumvent Bangladesh. She has taken a number of steps to bring the two countries nearer economically. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s remark must have come as a shock to her.

Yet Bangladesh reacted in a mature manner. It summoned to the foreign office India’s High Commissioner at Dhaka to tell about New Delhi’s version on the goof up. He reportedly assured that India’s relations were far deeper to be affected by a remark here or an indiscretion there.

Nonetheless, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s words have come in handy to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and other opposition elements which were only waiting for an excuse to take people on the streets. They want to put a spanner in Sheikh Hasina’s efforts to straighten things internally and with foreign countries, including India. Not everything she does is correct but that is her domestic problem, not ours.

Sometimes I have wondered whether there is a clique in the PMO which is purposely trying to blacken Manmohan Singh’s face. Even the formation under which the five editors were called was ill-conceived and ill-executed. It was a subjective selection by PM’s press adviser who did not think in detail how to meet the public demand for a more communicative PM. It is a natural corollary to the Prime Minister’s own promise that his government would be transparent. Like so many other things in this government, this blunder by the PMO will too go unaccounted. Nobody will be held responsible because the PM has the reputation of being a soft person. He has seldom taken any action against the person who has made a mistake. Even in the matter of corruption, he has been forced to remove former Telecommunications Minister A Raja and former CWG chairman Suresh Kalmadi

Yet it would need a lot of explaining to the people in Bangladesh because they are far from pacified by New Delhi’s apology or the announcement that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will visit Bangladesh on September 7-8. The Bangladeshis are not an anti-India lot and they nostalgically recall the time when the Indian army fought by the side of Mukti Bahini during the Bangladesh war.

The opposition leaders in Bangladesh, as it happens all over the world, react to certain situations to reap political dividends. But to dub them or a portion as anti-India is neither fair not correct. But then such are the inscrutable ways of the PMO which claims to be the custodian of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s reputation.