Keep your head
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UPA must maintain a sense of proportion in its response to the killing of Sarabjit Singh
In death, Sarabjit Singh has found national attention of a kind he never got while he was living. After he succumbed to injuries from a brutal attack inside a Lahore jail, where he had been imprisoned since 1990, there has been a rising clamour for retribution against Pakistan. While the anguished outburst of grieving relatives is understandable — his sister Dalbir Kaur has called for a war and appealed to the home minister to cancel all visas to Pakistan — what explains the lack of proportion in the response of India's principal opposition party? Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh and Narendra Modi have all rightly condemned the attack on Sarabjit that led to his death. But they have also sought to ratchet it up into a foreign policy failure — a weak Centre's inability to stand up to "Pakistan's inhuman acts".
While his family and lawyers insist that Sarabjit Singh was framed, Pakistani courts had held him guilty of involvement in deadly bombings in Faisalabad and Lahore. He was handed the death sentence and successive Indian governments have pressed Pakistan to release him on humanitarian grounds. This has been a cross-party diplomatic effort. There are clear limits to what India can do at any time, in terms of extracting outcomes from Pakistan's political and legal system. This is especially so when Pakistan is in a state of flux, preparing for elections. Of course, it suits the opposition to ignore these realities and cast itself as a steely alternative to a timid government. But it is the task of the government to keep a level head amid attempts to provoke and work up passions. There must be no repeat of the sequence of events in January, when, after reports of beheadings at the Line of Control, a heightened jingoism on TV channels and in sections of the political class appeared to nudge the prime minister to issue a grim warning to Pakistan that "business as usual" would now be unsustainable. The India-Pakistan diplomatic endeavour is a fragile and important one. At a time like this, the task of leadership is to restore a sense of proportion and perspective.
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