Sitting down to wait for my Defense Minister to arrive, I couldn’t help thinking how strange it was that I had to be in a faraway country to hear him speak. He walked in, diminutive but dapper, in a black Indian suit and the larger-than-expected crowd quietened down.
He began by admitting he was nervous, and it showed as he stumbled on a few words or phrases – the most memorable being ‘how things had changed since the “Cold year Wars”‘ – and fumbled a joke about George Bush. His delivery was oddly subdued, eyes firmly fixed to his sheaf of papers with few pauses to look up at his audience. His thick Bengali accent too was at times all-but-indecipherable: ‘India’s Look-East Policy’ becoming our “Locust Policy” and the meeting between Manmohan Singh and Musharraf taking place in Cuba’s capital of “Abana”.
Despite all this however, the speech itself was very good. In terms of content, it was certainly the best of the three I have heard so far from senior international political figures. There was little new for people familiar with India – he reiterated India’s secular commitment, the need to globally fight terrorism in the new security paradigm, India’s vital geo-political role in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, increasing ties with China and Japan, working through threats and issues from immediate neighbors etc etc. But for those unfamiliar with India, it was a crisp and concise overview of, in fact, the title of the speech “India’s Security Perspective.” A politician squarely addressing the topic? You don’t see that every day!
He was also excellent during the Q&A session, not shying away from tricky questions but answering them thoughtfully and directly, albeit with traces of diplomalese. When a Pakistani classmate asked him whether Kashmir would be solved in the student’s lifetime, Mukherjee smiled and said “I am optimistic it will be solved not just in your lifetime but in my lifetime.” He was superb on Iran: “they have the right to pursue their nuclear program but they must also submit to their obligations under the NPT; and any solution to the crisis must be peaceful and diplomatic.” He made a clear policy statement on Sri Lanka, given the repercussions Sri Lanka has for India, even though he risked offending several people in the audience: “any solution must respect the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka”. And he was clearly prepared for the question on India’s nuclear program and intentions, reading the flight of the question, dancing down the pitch and stroking it for a six that his compatriot Saurav Ganguly would have been proud of.
Off script, he became goofy again, ending with a toothy grandfatherly grin through which he thanked and wished his “young friends” good luck in their studies. But despite the stuttering start and awkward end, the middle was all substance. I left charmed and impressed.