“Multiple surgical strikes took place during our tenure, too. For us, military operations were meant for strategic deterrence and giving a befitting reply to anti-India forces than to be used for vote garnering exercises,” Singh, 86, said in an interview with Sunetra Choudhury of Hindustan Times

Indian armed forces received a free hand to respond to external threats during the term of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) as well and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempt to gain electoral mileage from military operations are “shameful and unacceptable,” says former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “Multiple surgical strikes took place during our tenure, too. For us, military operations were meant for strategic deterrence and giving a befitting reply to anti-India forces than to be used for vote garnering exercises,” Singh, 86, said in an interview with Sunetra Choudhury of Hindustan Times.

Q. As we go into the final phases of elections 2019, the BJP is pitching PM Narendra Modi as one of the strongest PMs we have seen, and who gave a decisive response to terror attacks like the one at Pulwama. They say that only Modi is strong enough to protect India’s borders. Some compare him to Indira Gandhi and her role in creation of Bangladesh. How do you see this?

A. Compromise on India’s National Security is unacceptable. 40 of our brave CRPF soldiers were martyred in the Pulwama terror attack at the most secure National Highway in the country. This is a grave intelligence and national security failure. Since then, it has come out that CRPF and BSF were requesting for airlifting the soldiers but the Modi Government refused it.

Government also ignored solid intelligence inputs from J&K police about an IED attack, besides turning a blind eye to a video warning of a terrorist organisation. In the past five years, Pakistan based terrorists have repeatedly targeted India’s military installations at Pampore, Uri, Pathankot, Gurdaspur, Sunjwan Army Camp, and even attacked the Amarnath Yatra.

Inviting ISI to investigate the Pathankot Air Base terror attack is the biggest strategic blunder committed by the Modi government. This demoralised our Armed Forces.

In the past five years, internal security situation in Jammu & Kashmir has rapidly deteriorated on account of an opportunist PDP-BJP government as also lack of a clear-cut Pakistan policy.

Let me remind you that our armed forces were always given a free hand to operationally respond to every threat. Multiple surgical strikes took place during our tenure too. For us, military operations were meant for strategic deterrence and giving a befitting reply to anti-India forces than to be used for vote garnering exercises. In the past 70 years, a government in power never had to hide behind the valour of our armed forces. Such attempts to politicize our forces are shameful and unacceptable.

All this is being done to draw the attention away from unpardonable failures of Modi Government on the economic front, on jobs, on rural distress, on MSMEs and the informal sector.

As far as the Bangladesh Liberation War and the political role of Smt. Indira Gandhi in 1971 or the 1965 War and the political role of Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri are concerned, these situations had a very large canvas of determined and decisive leadership. There cannot be any comparison between their greatness and the pettiness of the present regime. These leaders were appreciated for their towering diplomatic roles and for spearheading the reshaping the geography of the region. Neither Mrs Gandhi, nor her predecessor took away the credit of our armed forces in winning these wars.

Q. PM Modi’s supporters attack your government by saying that your response to 26/11 wasn’t strong enough. Looking back, is there anything that you would have done differently?

A. In the absence of facts, everyone can re-judge history in hindsight. I disagree with the insinuation that we were not ready with military punitive actions. However, different geopolitical conditions require different responses. Our response was to isolate and diplomatically expose Pakistan as a terror hub, besides rallying the international community for decisive action against terrorists. We succeeded too. Within 14 days of the Mumbai attack, we got China to agree to declare Hafiz Saeed as a global terrorist under the 1267 Sanctions Committee of UN. Congress-UPA ensured that a $10m bounty was placed on the head of the Mumbai attack perpetrator and the founder of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Hafiz Saeed by America. Another mastermind, David Headley was convicted to 35 years of prison during UPA-Congress Govt in 2013. The UN Security Council also put top LeT members involved in Mumbai attack on sanctions lists as terrorists. This has virtually rendered LeT ineffective today.

We made counter terrorism cooperation in the international community against LeT more effective. Countries like Saudi Arabia and even China co-operated to a great deal. Several terrorists were arrested and deported to India, as they travelled outside Pakistan. Sheikh Abdul Khwaja, handler of the 26/11 attack and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) chief of operations for India, was subsequently picked up in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and brought to Hyderabad and formally arrested in January 2010. Zaibuddin Ansari (aka Abu Hamza/Abu Jundal) was arrested at the Delhi airport in June 2012, after he was deported from Saudi Arabia.

Post the 26/11 attack, the Congress-UPA Government strengthened coastal security and mooted the idea of a National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), but the then Gujarat CM, Shri Narendra Modi unequivocally opposed the idea. We also conceived the NATGRID, which is an integrated intelligence grid connecting databases of core security agencies of the Government of India to collect comprehensive patterns of intelligence that could be readily accessed. But the Modi government has virtually put NCTC & NATGRID in cold storage.

Q. You have spoken about ‘maintaining taboo’ on nuclear weapons while the PM has said that they weren’t just meant for Diwali. Do you think his may resonate with the masses more?

A. Our nuclear capabilities are our strength and a security deterrent. Pandit Nehru laid the foundation of our nuclear capabilities. Indira Gandhi conducted our first nuclear test in Pokhran, in 1974. Since then, every Congress government has carried the resolve of strengthening and advancing our civil and military nuclear programme forward. As a result, our weapons capability was tested by the 13-month long Vajpayee Government. Nuclear deterrence and peaceful use of nuclear power are two time-tested responsible policies of our nation.

You would recollect that for harnessing nuclear energy for the nation, we had put at stake the very existence of UPA-Congress government. The entire nation remembers the no-confidence vote initiated by a hypocritical BJP on the issue of making India strong and independent in nuclear energy. Why did Mr. Narendra Modi and the BJP oppose it then? Yet, we never used the issue as a political prop. This is the gold standard of our resilience, restraint and sensitivity towards our nuclear capabilities. No Prime Minister has used the issue of our nuclear capabilities for political purposes. I suppose this reflects the political desperation in face of an imminent defeat.

Q. Would you agree that the BJP has been successful in making security and terror a major election issue instead of jobs and rural distress which Congress was pushing for?

A. Riding on empty rhetoric, the Modi Government has been an utter failure on the issue of national security. In the last five years, terror attacks in Jammu & Kashmir alone have gone up by 176% ; ceasefire violations at the border by Pakistan have increased by 1,000%. There have been 17 major terror attacks on our security installations. Defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP is lowest in the last 57 years. Does it not speak volumes about the performance and priorities of this government? (Abridged for suitability)