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Thursday, October 19, 2000



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Soldiering on

Menka Shivdasani

ONE RARELY hears a conversation between two truly sophisticated personalities on Indian television. On Tuesday, at 10-30 p.m. on DD Metro was one rare occasion. Seasoned journalist Ms Tavleen Singh spoke to the External Affairs Minister, Mr Jaswant Singh , the man she credited with changing the face of India's foreign policy.

What made the Face The People interview a pleasure to watch was that even when they disagreed, which is one of the factors that make for an interesting interview, it was with an elegance rarely seen. At one point, Mr Jaswant Singh said he did not wish to contradict her; instead he wished ``to share a different perception.''

As a newspaper columnist, Ms Tavleen Singh invariably makes her point emphatically. On television, she has an unobtrusive style. She says her piece and then allows the interviewee to speak, and on the rare occasion she does interject, it does not come ac ross as an interruption at all. When she suggested, for instance, that India and Pakistan no longer spoke the same language, and the Minister observed that they still did, she responded with a smile: ``They just do not hear each other any more!''

Ms Tavleen Singh began the interview by pointing out that India's foreign policy had always been dictated by the Cold war and Kashmir. She asked the minister what had caused the shift in his regime -- history, or him as an individual. Mr Jaswant Singh, n aturally, said it was history, and that it would be terrible to take credit as an individual. ``We are all instruments,'' he said. ``The challenge is to understand the trend of history and this is all I can really claim to have done.'' What a change he m akes from the pompous politicians who lose no opportunity to trumpet their achievements, real and imaginary!

Ms Tavleen Singh also observed that he began at the ``lowest ebb''-- the Kandahar hijacking -- and moved on to the ``highest point''-- the US visit. Mr Jaswant Singh wanted to know how Kandahar could be described as a ``foreign policy low point'', and re fused to rise to the bait when Ms Tavleen Singh quoted L. K. Advani's as saying that Mr Jaswant Singh should not have taken the same aircraft as the terrorists. Instead, he discussed the plight of the relatives of the hijack victims, and said there was n o choice. ``How else could it have been handled?'' he asked.

Nor did he think the US visit the high point of his Ministry's achievements, because that would imply the work was done and there was nothing left to achieve. Plus, the high point was not really the US visit, but the fact that India was now being recogni sed by the international community. If the cross-border terrorism India was being subjected to is today at the forefront of international consciousness, he observed, he would ``make so bold as to assert that it was only during and after Kargil.''

There was a great deal in the interview that Mr Jaswant Singh has said before -- the fact that India does not need international mediation over the Kashmir issue because a third party will always have an external agenda. Ms Tavleen Singh asked him a ques tion he has been asked before, and to which he gave precisely the same answer I remember him giving more than a year ago in another interview. ``How would you like to be remembered?'' she asked. He said: ``I really do not want to be writing my epilogue.. . but I would like to be remembered as yet another soldier of India, who soldiered on.'' He also spoke of the wish to reach out to the ``outer realms of possibility.''

If Mr Jaswant Singh will be remembered for causing a radical shift in the way India looks at foreign policy, Mr Pramod Mahajan will be remembered as another minister who tried to make a difference. With the IT Act coming into force, making India one of t he few countries to have a legal framework for information technology, we are poised to see a quantum leap in communications and e-commerce. As Mr Pawan Duggal, who was identified as an `expert' in cyber laws, explained on Zee News' Prime Time, now that digital signatures have been legalised, more electronic contracts will be signed, making transactions quicker and simpler.

Mr Duggal was also all praise for the fact that cyber crime would be reduced, and warned people that if they were thinking of hacking or other unlawful activities, they had better think twice again.

Of course, great laws are wonderful in theory, and India has no shortage of them. Their enforcement is another matter, with a variety of stumbling blocks. If cyber crime has to be contained, we will need more policemen who are computer- and net-savvy eno ugh to understand the issues involved. Mr Mahajan himself was well aware of this, when he was quoted by Zee News as saying that the police would now require a computer section to deal with cyber crimes.

Mr Duggal made the same point, explaining what really does not need to be said, that ordinary policemen did not have the capability to go into complex issues such as hacking.

Mr Mahajan is certainly keen to see progress. He mentioned that he favoured allowing voice-over-Internet, for instance, as it was important to make communications faster and cheaper. ``E-commerce will soon be a reality,'' he said. ``Today, it is only tal k.''

A beginning has been made and hopefully the momentum will be kept up.

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