Union minister for urban development Hardeep Singh Puri has a reputation for speaking his mind. "I am too old to get into trouble,'' he says, with a laugh. In his new book, Delusional Politics, Puri, uses his skills as a diplomat to analyse a post-truth world where false narratives prevail. He writes about a failing UN, multilateralism and, of course, President Donald Trump. Puri pulls no punches as he reflects on Trump's fate—he is likely to be indicted, he says—or Iran, which cannot be underestimated even in its "potential for destabilising". He dismisses Congress MP Navjot Singh Sidhu’s praise for Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, saying: "He (Sidhu) was giving the prime minister of Pakistan a demigod status. I am more clinical. I played cricket. But not his kind." The book was written before he became minister and is his personal opinion, Puri insists. Excerpts from an interview:
In your book, you list five possibilities for what could happen to Trump.
Out of the five, what is likely to happen is that he is going to be indicted for his acts prior to becoming president. He has immunity now. Secondly, he is definitely going to be indicted for obstruction of justice. But having said that, I also maintain that his support base among people who elected him is not [weakening].
Very few people would put Trump, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot and delusion in the same sentence.
I do not put Pol Pot, Attila the Hun and Trump in the same category. I make a far more nuanced point. My point is that delusion as an attribute has been known for centuries. I also then try and emphasise that some of it is not all delusional. Some of it is a medical problem. Hitler, for instance, was fed high doses of vitamins. I am not saying that Trump is in this category by far. In fact, after all the predictions I make, Trump may end up getting another term.
You have been blunt about many foreign-related matters, more than the ministry of external affairs.
This book was written before I became a minister. In a career spanning 39 years in the foreign service, I was always known for speaking bluntly.
You talk about Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port and airport, calling it delusional.
To have a white elephant project that will lead you into exacerbation of debt, which, ultimately, will slice away your sovereignty... It is a totally delusional.
Then, why would India invest in the world’s emptiest airport?
In our case, it is a strategic investment. We are a $2.7 trillion economy. We grow 7.5 per cent [every year]. I think it is a small price to pay. It is not on the same plane. In Sri Lanka, somewhere along the way, some of the political class of Sri Lanka misread the situation. I think Rajiv Gandhi’s 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord, where [we] went out of the way to assist them, was done literally. Not because we wanted any strategic inroads there. Rajiv Gandhi paid for it with his life.
You are very blunt about how we assisted the LTTE.
You know what [LTTE leader V.] Prabhakaran told me? 'We were a small outfit. Your Mrs [Indira] Gandhi, whom I regarded as a mother called us and gave us arms.' [If not for that] the LTTE would have remained a small militant outfit. Could they have become the outfit that they did without assistance from across the Palk Strait? I will leave it at that.
You have been very frank about Trump pulling out of Iran.
I speak in my personal capacity. [The Iran deal] was a much better deal with all other members of the Security Council building the safeguards you required. You had international agencies also helping out. Compare that with what he (Trump) has got with North Korea. Where is the comparison?
I am very clear in my mind. If you do not want to deal with Iran for a variety of reasons, then it is different. There is an Israeli factor, a Saudi factor. I think all this is delusional.
You say that an Iran-Trump standoff could be catastrophic for the world.
It could be, if not handled properly. Why did President Barack Obama go for the Iran deal? There were enough voices within the US decision-making establishment warning him against it. But this is where statesmanship comes in.
How will the Iran fallout impact India?
We have an old relationship with Iran.
India has signed defence diplomacy pacts with most countries in west Asia. But not with Iran.
We do not measure the strength of our diplomacy with the military component. You can have good relations with Iran without that. [What stands out is] India’s ability to maintain relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel. The US policy is not carved in stone. [The Iran deal was] started by Obama, but then you have someone else wanting to pull the plug.
You think it was not prudent of America to pull out of the Iran deal?
I feel these deals are very difficult to work out. Once you are in there it is better [to continue]. I am on the side of engagement.... Don’t underestimate Iran as a country. Don’t underestimate Iran’s potential to engage them.
Destablise, too. It is very clear. It is a strong country. It has reach. There is much more merit in engaging them and utilising the multilateral instruments available. That would be everyone’s interest.
You say there are no good terrorists. Then how do we deal with the Taliban?
A terrorist is a terrorist. But at the end of the day, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. So you have to deal with them. Now, whether you want to deal with the Taliban or not is not my call. But if someone is dealing with the Taliban, I want enough safeguards. Can a revolutionary force or a terror force ever make the transition from wielding the AK-47?
I once asked Prabhakaran about Sri Lankan president J.R. Jayewardene offering him a deal with provincial councils and a certain representation, devolution of powers. He responded: 'I have killed more Sinhalese and Tamils. I do not think I can make that kind of transition.' The fact is that this is the beginning of the process. I see many in India saying they are very worried if they (the Americans) pull out. That is not how it plays out. There is not only India, there is Russia, there is China.... You think you are going to give that whole sizzling territory to the Taliban so that they can run it to merry hell with Pakistan and Iran? Let’s see how this unfolds.
India is now in same room as the Taliban. Soon, we could be talking. If the Afghans want to talk to the Taliban and want peace, should we not help?
I wrote this book before I became minister, so I want to qualify that the scenario in Afghanistan will play out as it has been envisaged. Because this presupposes a certain transitioning and maturity of the Taliban from wielding the gun to peace time democracy. These are early days yet. But India, under Modi and the kind of security establishment we have now, is more than capable of looking after itself.
You speak about foreign policy and how it is directed from the top.
I was staff officer to possibly the strongest foreign secretary—J.N. Dixit. The intelligent secretary will go and have a chat with the prime minister and put up a note, which makes it look like it is [the PM's] idea. But, make no mistake, it is the prerogative of the prime minister to conduct foreign policy. I think foreign establishments have always fallen in line. In this case, it is very good because we are in a post-ideological world. Foreign policy will always be made from the top. But foreign policy can benefit from inputs. I think this is happening now.
Are there inputs?
There are inputs and the prime minister is open. Believe me, apart from the fact that he does his own thinking, he has the national security adviser and a succession of strong foreign secretaries. He takes meetings. There are a lot of people he talks to. He has another advantage. He has [good] chemistry with all world leaders. He can pick up the phone and talk to [anyone from] Trump, Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping, to Israelis and South Africans. That energy and dynamism is a tipping point.
You have said that the UN is not fulfilling its role at all.
It is not being allowed to. When you say the UN, I ask which one? There are three UNs; the member states, the secretariat and the civil society, [which is] more visible and an active part. My worry is that incoming secretary generals have [only] one or two choices. They misread the proximity of New York and Washington. In other words, they transcribe in that functioning. I think the kind of problems the world is facing today are so serious, and so huge, that are beyond the capability of the most powerful states. Multilateralism has been rendered ineffective because you have the same dominant powerplay, which is delusional politics.
You said you have tried to convince India to push for Security Council reforms.
I have failed. It is not my beat. If as a housing minister I say, 'Take more interest in the Security Council', my friends in the MEA will say I am trying to encroach on their turf. That is not my intention. But for someone who was born in to the system, I think with a little tweaking, [it is possible. It is] one of my desires in the second Modi term. We are doing a lot on the multilateral system on solar energy and on sanitation. But we need to get into the inner core power structure in Security Council issues.
You talk about Doklam in the book.
We called their (the Chinese) bluff. But you must also learn how to tango with the dragon. [We] are doing that. It needed some correction in the relationship. Do not look at China only through the prism of 1962. The second problem is that China is an $11 trillion economy. My problem with China is that they are not used to the idea of co-equal relationship with trade and economic terms. We need to engage the Chinese at the highest levels, on economic relationships, and tell the Chinese that 'I cannot continue an economic relationship where the deficit is so glaring'. It requires statesmanship. I think the prime minister has displayed that.
The PM has tried to deal with Pakistan. You went to Kartarpur. What did you think?
I was asked to go [at the] last minute. As a devotee and as a Sikh, I can say with all humility that it was a moving experience. Now, with the passage of time, I am very clear that the nature of the deep state in Pakistan has not changed. The nature of the deep state is encouraging characters who want to destabilise India. [But] they do not stand a chance like the 2020 referendum [demand for the creation of Khalistan].
Are you saying that the demand for the 2020 referendum is sponsored by Pakistan?
It is an ISI project, make no mistake. That is why it is not taking off, because even the diaspora can see through it. People say that the newly elected prime minister [of Pakistan] wants to work on peace. Is he able to? That is a question that has always been asked. People say that the chief of the army staff General Bajwa has a more open mind. I have known Bajwa from my UN days. You (India) should keep your options open. The Kartarpur corridor is good, but we have to build in safeguards to ensure it is not used for other purposes. Countries are never in a perpetual continuous hostility. There is a time when you move it around. I am not sure Pakistan has reached that point.