BJP spokespersons have been asserting on TV screens and public platforms that I should have taken the government's permission before hosting an old Pakistani friend of mine to dinner. Why should I seek anyone's permission to host a dinner party - even if that friend is a Pakistani? Why cannot I invite friends and colleagues to talk about Pakistan with a distinguished Pakistani? Why must I toe Modi's line on Pakistan? What gives the government a monopoly of national opinion on our neighbour? Does anyone who does not believe that the Prime Minister is the nation's sole fount of wisdom become liable to the charge of treachery? Do I not have a right to privacy? Do my guests not have such a right?
The BJP responds that this was not just some dinner party, it amounted to sleeping with the enemy. Indeed, the Prime Minister has darkly hinted that I was hiring a contract killer ("supari") to get him. Invoking a fake Facebook post, he slyly let slip that the dinner was a "secret" conclave to hatch a "conspiracy" with the Pakistanis to make - horror of horrors - a Gujarati Muslim the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Utter rubbish, total balderdash, but a nasty move to establish a salience between Pakistan and Indian Muslims to polarize a crucial election.
Well, I don't consider Muslims or Pakistanis my enemies, especially a Pakistani Muslim like Khurshid Kasuri who I have known since we were twenty-year-old undergraduates at the same Cambridge college some 56 years ago. It was a friendship that was renewed when the founder-President of the BJP, and then Janata Party Foreign Minister of India, Atal Behari Vajpayee, chose me, out of scores of other IFS officers of about my seniority, to be the first-ever Consul-General of India in Karachi (1978-82).
Did he choose me to go to Karachi to spew at the Pakistanis? Atal Behari-ji, as a man truly worthy of the post of Prime Minister, would invariably take his seat in the House whenever I rose to speak on Pakistan. For unlike the present incumbent, he was not paranoid about Pakistan. A true democrat, he was interested in understanding other perspectives on that country.
I flew to Islamabad in December 1978 from the home of our Ambassador in Abu Dhabi, M Hamid Ansari, a brilliant diplomat and an engaging companion with whom I had served a little earlier in Brussels. He was among my closest friends in the Foreign Service and I appointed him chairman of the Oil Diplomacy Committee when I was Petroleum Minister. Destiny had kissed him on the brow to rise for ten long years (2007-2017) to the second-highest constitutional position in our land: Vice-President and Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. Invaluable in his penetrating insights into the Pak psyche, he has guided me over the years through the maze of Pakistan's domestic politics. He introduced me to his wife's relatives in Karachi. (Among those I took to their home was a highly distinguished young journalist, in the forefront then of the crusade for a secular India; he is now a minister in Modi's government. O tempora! O mores!) Hamid Ansari was second only to Doctor-sahib among the distinguished guests at my dinner.
The morning after I reached Islamabad to be briefed by my Ambassador before taking up my new assignment, I heard the Ambassador speaking on the phone to Khurshid Kasuri. I slipped him a note on which I had scribbled that Khurshid was an old friend of mine. He passed on the phone to me, and I could hear the joy in Khurshid's voice as he welcomed me to Pakistan, insisting that I proceed to Karachi only after first visiting Lahore. That was a tempting invitation as I was born in Lahore. I agreed, subject to Khurshid driving me straight from the airport to my old home at 44, Lakshmi Mansions, located in the triangle formed by Beedon Road, Hall Road and The Mall. Khurshid promptly agreed and my Ambassador indulgently let me take that slightly circuitous route to my new posting.
That Ambassador, Katyayani Shankar Bajpai, was no soft-heart like me. He has always had a hard, tough understanding of Pakistan, untouched by any of the starry-eyed romanticism that tinges my view of that country. He was at the time in almost daily touch with Barrister Khurshid Kasuri, monitoring developments in the then ongoing Lahore High Court trial of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. That is how trustworthy the Ambassador had found Khurshid. Now nearly 90 years old, Ambassador K Shankar Bajpai was another of my valued guests.
On my landing in Lahore, Khurshid picked me up and drove me straight to the apartment where my family had lived till Partition, now taken over by a medical doctor who had been a student in London while Khurshid and I were cutting our academic teeth in Cambridge. I have since been several times to Lakshmi Mansions (does Modi know it is still called that even seven decades after Partition?), taking my wife and children with me so often that the old chowkidar lets me in even when Dr Malik is not at home. Most touching of all was when I visited Pakistan as India's Petroleum Minister to initiate talks on the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. The Residents Welfare Association of Lakshmi Mansions (including writer Sa'adat Hassan Manto's family) organized a welcome reception for me and Dr Malik asked me to send him a blow-up of my parents' photograph so that he could, in respectful tribute to their memory, hang it on the walls of their first marital home. Is this the enemy?
In 2003, Musharraf appointed Khurshid Kasuri as his Foreign Minister. Kasuri immediately embarked on the most determined exercise in India-Pak history to resolve the Kashmir issue to the mutual satisfaction of the two countries and the people of Kashmir divided by the Line of Control.
The parameters for that bold initiative were set by President Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (the most distinguished of the invitees to my dinner party). Between them, they agreed that there would be no exchange of territory or people but an attempt to "render the LoC irrelevant" to the ordinary lives of ordinary Kashmiris on either side of the Line.
The task of negotiating the deal was entrusted on the back-channel to a Pakistani civil servant, Tariq Aziz, and Ambassador Sati Lambah of India (yes, Sati too was my guest at the Kasuri dinner). Sati was not only my Islamabad counterpart though all the three years I served in Karachi, he went on to head the Pakistan division at headquarters, returned to Islamabad both as Deputy High Commissioner and High Commissioner, and climaxed his high-flying life in diplomacy as the longest-ever serving PM's Special Envoy: nine uninterrupted years as Doctor sahib's most trusted aide on Pakistan. No one knows Pakistan better or longer than Sati Lambah.
The kick-off point for the Musharraf-Manmohan dialogue was Atal Behari Vajpayee's January 2004 visit to Islamabad, accompanied by his Foreign Minister, Yashwant Sinha (who had also accepted my invitation but could not attend because he was detained by the Maharashtra police in Akola).
On the Pakistan side, it was Kasuri who supervised and guided the back-channel conversations that brought more progress than ever before on the vexed question of Kashmir. It would have been concluded, but for Musharraf's domestic fracas with the judiciary that presaged the end of his regime. Whenever the dialogue is resumed, the four-point formula will surely constitute the point of departure.
On the Indian side, Dr Manmohan Singh's Foreign Minister at the commencement of the back-channel talks was Natwar Singh. So I invited him too, bearing particularly in mind that not only had he been my boss in Islamabad for most of my term in Pakistan, but also because of his immortal comment to the Pakistan press on the ghastly Moradabad riots sparked just outside the Eidgah on the holy day of Eid, 1981: "I feel humiliated as an Indian and diminished as a human being.
Present too were former High Commissioners Sharat Sabharwal and TCA Raghavan. Raghavan's masterpiece, The People Next Door, published a few months ago, has quickly become the defining narrative of what Raghavan calls in his subtitle The Curious History of our relations with Pakistan. He describes, with a wealth of documented detail, that "curious history" as moving cyclically between proving the doves right before moving on remorselessly to prove the hawks right.
We also had two former Heads of the Pakistan Division: Chinmaya Gharekhan who headed the Division when I was in Karachi, and then went on to become principal foreign policy adviser in the PMO to two Prime Ministers, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, before winding up his career in the IFS as the longest-ever serving Permanent Representative of India to the UN. He was later Dr Manmohan Singh's special envoy for West Asia. He is a frequent contributor on foreign policy to several journals, including The Indian Express and The Hindu. There is absolutely nothing clandestine about him. He bluntly told Kasuri that so long as Pakistan insisted on filching back Kashmir from us, there was nothing to talk about to Pakistan. Gharekhan, a conspirator? Gharekhan, a subversive? Modi-ji, why not check with him? Know what? Notwithstanding his name, Gharekhan is not a Muslim, his surname is a title bestowed centuries ago on his family. Indeed, he is a fellow-Gujarati! Khem chhe?
The other Head of Division present was MK Bhadrakumar, former Deputy High Commissioner to Pakistan. No one in India, absolutely no one, is engaged as deeply as he is with Central Asia, West Asia and our neighbourhood in which he quite rightly includes China, and views all foreign policy in the perspective of great power geopolitics and geo-strategies. After retirement, he has emerged as the most prolific writer on foreign policy in Indian journalism. Modi's spooks can track him every day before dawn. Far from stooping to low conspiracy, Bhadrakumar's published view is that the talk at the Kasuri dinner amounted to little more than "airy nothings".
We had two professional journalists of long standing: Prem Shankar Jha, former editor of The Hindustan Times and Rahul Khushwant Singh, former editor of The Khaleej Times, Dubai, and former resident editor of The Indian Express, Chandigarh - blameless except for being stained by association with me since our school days! Besides, we were graced by the participation of an outstanding defence analyst, Col Ajai Shukla (retd), a soldier and an intellectual who understands defence matters better than anyone else in the public realm, a jewel in the diadem of Business Standard. They too are being slyly accused of "conspiring" to unseat the BJP. Shocking. Reprehensible.
I rounded off my list of invitees with none other and none less than the former army chief, General Deepak Kapoor. I wanted him in so that Kasuri would not get away without first hearing an authoritative armed forces voice. This is the highly-distinguished, highly-decorated officer, who risked his life all through his life in the service of the nation, whose integrity, patriotism, and sacrifice has been impugned by a Prime Minister - none less and none other - as having attended a "secret" conclave in my home to take out a "supari" on Narendra-bhai Modi. Even my acerbic tongue cannot find the right word to condemn this outrage.
And, oh yes, of course, there was the newly-appointed Pakistan High Commissioner, learning the ropes, more silent than the Silent Valley, deferring to his former boss, Khurshid Kasuri.
We had nothing to hide. We were just close friends and top experts who had spent a virtual life time professionally involved in and analyzing India-Pakistan relations. We had come together to brief Khurshid on Indian perspectives on Pakistan because Kasuri is arguably the best friend India has in influential political circles in that country. We also wanted to hear him, as an articulate well-informed and India-friendly interlocutor. He has, of course, been out of office for the best part of a decade and is unlikely to make it again. So, the discussion was informal and certainly not "official". All of us, without exception, were "has-beens".
There was absolutely nothing "secret" or "secretive" about the get-together. Indeed, the place was crawling with Modi's intelligence agents whispering into their lapel mikes. Khurshid Kasuri is closely related to the Rampur family. The dates of the wedding in their family had been determined without reference to the election in Gujarat. My invitations had gone out a month earlier and reminders had been issued both by email and mobile phones. Doubtless, both were tapped.
We talked and dined convivially for about three hours, my wife proving to our Pakistani guests that Indian nihari and biryani are quite as good as in Pakistan! Some BJP spokesman misunderstood and claimed we had sat and conspired till 3 am. There was no conspiracy. There was no mention of Gujarat. We were just talking Pakistan with a Pakistani guest and friend.
It is shameful that baseless allegations have been flung from public platforms by no less a personage than the present Prime Minister, with the Election Commission taking no suo moto notice of these repeated transgressions of electoral ethics, political morality and very possibly the Model Code of Conduct. Such distinguished citizens of our nation as a former Prime Minister, a former Vice President and a former Chief of Army Staff, besides a former Foreign Minister and a former Foreign Secretary, plus a raft of some of the best diplomats the Indian Foreign Service has produced since Independence, not to mention three of our best known political and national security commentators, have been, in effect, accused by high authority of subversion, sabotage and sedition. How, in a democracy, can the right of any citizen to express views contrary to those of the government be questioned as Modi and his cohort are doing? Are we not drifting towards becoming a police state?
I know Modi hates me. But my party so distrusts me that I was perhaps the only Congressman of 25 years standing who was not sent to Gujarat for the campaign. Yet, Modi's invective was reserved for me as if the Battle for Gujarat was between him and me. Towards the end of my Rajya Sabha term, I asked him a question on the floor of the House. He brushed off my enquiry, adding, quite gratuitously, that I would soon be joining the ranks of the "bhule-bisre" - the forgotten and the destitute. That indeed would have been my fate - except for Narendra-bhai Modi. He has given me more publicity than I could have garnered for myself in three lives. Thank you, Prime Minister.
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)
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