I have been told that a very senior government official was so outraged by Miliband’s lecturing on how India should handle the Kashmir issue that he said, in a very quiet but stern voice, “We did not tell you how to handle Ulster and I do not expect you to tell me how to handle Kashmir”.
In diplomatic terms, that was one of the bluntest remarks made to a visiting dignitary for a long time, and Miliband and his misguided advisers from London should not have ignored it.
But he was clearly off-cue when he wrote: “……resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms, and allow Pakistani authorities to focus more effectively on tackling the threat on their western borders……”.
To describe Kashmir in that context is wrong – but it is in line with propaganda that Pakistan deployed to influence Barack Obama’s advisers as they prepared policies before his inauguration a week ago. The fact that Obama has not included India in the Pakistan-Afghanistan brief given to Richard Holbrooke, his special envoy to the region, shows that the US has realised that it is counter-productive to approach India and Kashmir on the Miliband line.
But as I understand what happened, it was not so much the Miliband’s broad statements that infuriated Delhi and provoked the personal rebuke, but the arrogant insensitive way in which this wet-behind-the-ears politician delivered his message – first by writing the Guardian article just as he was about to arrive, and then by his personal and disrespectful style in Delhi.
Publicity on what happened was partially overshadowed by the village sleepover organised for him by Rahul Gandhi in rural Uttar Pradesh – presumably two guys who both expect to be prime ministers one day doing some advance bonding, having first met when Gandhi was living in London.
However, the event is still erupting in the newspapers. the Mail Today on January 24 had an article by its editor, Bharat Bhushan, on “The damage we inflict on ourselves”, complaining that India’s diplomacy has failed to such an extent “that everybody and his dog can come and do as they please in Delhi”.
“David Miliband demonstrated that he was yet to be house trained when he let loose a peremptory lecture to the prime minister of India,” wrote Bhushan.
There is also an odd story doing the rounds about a letter that Manmohan Singh was reported to have sent to Gordon Brown, Britain’s prime minister, complaining about Miliband’s “behaviour and comments”. The prime minister’s office (PMO) denied that such a letter had been sent, but I understand that it was sources in the PMO who first alerted Indian journalists to the letter. Presumably, such a letter was sent, but not quite in the strident terms deployed by the over-eager PMO sources.
As soon as Miliband left, Lord (Peter) Mandelson, Britain’s political-accident-prone business and enterprise secretary, flew in and behaved badly at a CII conference. He made his speech and then left before Pranab Mukherjee, India’s foreign minister, and Kamal Nath, the commerce and industry minister spoke, without making any public apology or speaking quietly to them on the platform. He apparently had an important engagement to do with British firms trying to sell nuclear wares to India, and officials say he had told the CII and Kamal Nath – but that does not excuse the insensitivity of his departure from the conference.
Miliband and Mandelson are clearly supremely self-confident British ministers. They are also supremely insensitive, and Miliband should be seen historically alongside the late Robin Cooke who, as British foreign secretary in 1997, helped to make a hash of the Queen’s visit to celebrate India’s 50 years of independence – again by clumsily trying to tell India off over Kashmir.
Representatives of such a former colonial power need to adjust to the times. It is of course correct to say that India should do more on Kashmir – not least on granting it more autonomy – but not in the context of the Miliband message.