Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Barack Obama (Pic: http://pmindia.nic.in/)
As important as David Coleman Headley is to unraveling the November 26,2008 Mumbai terror attacks and any possible similar future plots, I find it a bit odd that he figured so prominently in the meeting between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
It is undeniable that India has a direct and far more consequential interest in Headley than the United States. It is equally understandable that Indian investigators are exercised over not being able to conduct any direct interrogation of someone who has pleaded guilty to all 12 counts he was charged with in connection with the Mumbai case. Quite obviously, domestic political compulsions also demanded that Singh appeared personally seized of the matter.
Notwithstanding all of these compelling factors, there is still something incongruous about the two top leaders discussing a specific case.The Obama-Singh meeting took place on Sunday on the sidelines of the nuclear security summit that the US president has convened. It is true that in many ways the Headley case has become emblematic of how bilateral relations actually work on the ground beyond the lofty verbiage of bilateral treaties such as the extradition treaty between the two countries.
India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao told journalists that Obama "was fully supportive of our request for provision" of access to Headley, adding " that they were working through their legal system on the issue." While it is extraordinary for a US president to offer support in a specific criminal case, it is not clear what it is he can actually do in tangible terms. I am not much conversant with the American judicial system but I doubt whether the president can intervene in any way, shape or form in such cases and make any binding commitments of cooperation.
That India will be given access to Headley after some effort is now inevitable. It will be a qualified and controlled access as I have been reporting for sometime now. I am sure Indian investigators know well that access does not automatically mean that Headley will offer highly valuable and immediately actionable intelligence about any future terror plots. He is unlikely to tell the Indians what he has not already shared with the Americans. So any interrogation of Headley is likely to be reiteration and reaffirmation of what is already known to India.
There is no way President Obama can prevail on Attorney-General Eric Holder to do anything more than what Holder has already assured India’s Home Minister P. Chidambaram of doing.
So I come back to my original point. What then was the point of Headley being escalated to the highest levels of the two countries’ leaderships? At best it should have been discussed at the level of the two national security advisers. Once Headley finds out, which I suspect he may already have through his lawyers, that he is now a subject of summit level talks between India and the United States he could derive some vicarious satisfaction out of it. In his trade such notoriety is a badge of honor.