What Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar won’t say

Why couldn’t Dr Singh visit Pakistan? Why did UPA policy not deliver when he, Khurshid were in charge?

Written by M J Akbar | Published: November 20, 2015 12:10 am
Mani Shankar Aiyar Mani Shankar Aiyar

Science might have jogged along a bit since the doctors of medicine in ancient Greece, but their metaphors are still in application. Hippocrates was right when, nearly 2,500 years ago, he recognised the “humour” or bile that gives rise to choleric rage as a medical condition.

The malevolence that infuses the language of Congress notables like Mani Shankar Aiyar and Salman Khurshid when they refer to Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not, however, emerge merely from personal frustrations. There is also some elitist snobbery. A “chap” who should have ended his career serving scones in their boarding schools has had the temerity to become prime minister of India. But this is less relevant than the question raised by Aiyar when he urged a Pakistani television audience to “remove” Modi so that talks could resume between India and Pakistan.

If the debate were informed by reason rather than prejudice, the relevant question would be different: Why couldn’t Manmohan Singh visit Pakistan as prime minister?

Manmohan Singh was prime minister for 10 years. You have to be 10 times blessed by destiny to achieve such longevity in office. Manmohan Singh was sincere enough. There was also a very understandable emotional aspect. Manmohan Singh was very keen to visit Gah, the Pakistani village where he was born and lived before fleeing as a refugee when sibling neighbours were separated at birth by the cruel knife of Partition.

Why did Manmohan Singh fail to achieve peace?

For 10 long years, he continued a dialogue at many levels. Perhaps the most important tier of this multi-dimensional engagement took place in what is known as the secretive back-channel. What happened there? We do not know. What we do know is that nothing important was achieved on any channel, which was why the relationship remained dangerously stagnant below the semantics of good manners and the cordial exchange of signals that signified nothing. Is this what we want — the restoration of sterility under the veil of pretence?

It is important to stress that Manmohan Singh made the compromises he considered necessary for taking the relationship forward, which, in the view of many analysts, were injurious to our national interest. At the height of his personal influence, after re-election in 2009, Manmohan Singh accepted in a joint statement issued at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, an implicit Indian role in the Balochistan uprising that has troubled Pakistan for decades. This reversal of India’s position was not only totally unwarranted, but astonished even Manmohan Singh’s national security advisor, M.K. Narayanan, who had to be farmed out to a palace in Calcutta soon after Sharm el-Sheikh. Pakistan did not bend before any Indian demand on action against architects of terrorism against us, the chief of whom is, of course, Hafiz Saeed, then head of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. It was Manmohan Singh who gave way. Even this did not persuade Pakistan to lift the security protection and legal lenience that it has provided to Saeed and his fellow terrorists, or indeed do anything else to create conditions for a visit by Manmohan Singh. Why has this fact disappeared from discussion?

It seems now that Sharm el-Sheikh was not an aberration but conscious Congress policy. Khurshid’s virtual silence on Saeed during a recent set-piece visit to Karachi to deliver a formal address indicates as much. Khurshid has served as foreign minister under Manmohan Singh. He has the blessings of the leaders of his party, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. He cannot be dismissed as a maverick on the wrong kind of steroids. Khurshid praised the Pakistan army for confronting tribal forces on its western frontiers, but did not have much to say about ISI support for the architects of the Mumbai outrage, or their successors who might be planning a repetition. This is precisely the line that Pakistani hardliners want Indian politicians to take. We should not be surprised if the government of Nawaz Sharif and Raheel Sharif conclude that they have diminished, if not dented, India’s unity on terrorism.

The Congress is now extending, in the company of bombastic rabble-rousers like Azam Khan, the Pakistani narrative to terrorism across the world. Islamabad’s standard response, when questioned about the sources of terrorism that find sanctuary on its soil, is to divert the argument to “causes” of terrorism. This is what Azam Khan and Aiyar repeat.

There is a misguided notion behind this voice of appeasement. There are too many senior people in the Congress and other parties who believe that this is what Indian Muslims want to hear, that such rhetoric will cement their support. Certainly the likes of Azam Khan have no other reason for playing their verbal games. This is not only wrong but does Indian Muslims severe injustice. The fringe of extremists apart, Indian Muslims believe in the values of their soil and the principles of our Constitution. They want the same things from practical electoral politics as anyone else; fundamentally, a better life. To believe that they will sympathise with a foreigner’s murderous war is to echo a lie.

No one in his senses prefers conflict to peace. Every prime minister of India has sought a settlement with Pakistan, and every prime minister will continue to do so. But whose fault was it that Manmohan Singh failed? Aiyar was in the cabinet; Khurshid was foreign minister; both said everything Pakistan wanted to hear, and continue to do so. Why did the three fail despite being in power for 10 years? Was a decade too short even to open a door for Manmohan Singh’s visit?

What right do Aiyar and Khurshid have to talk about talks when all their talking for 10 years did not take the two countries an inch forward? Or is simulation and pretence all that they and the Congress have as substitute for policy?

Islamabad felt no need to reach terms with a government it could take for a ride. That is the answer to the question that the Congress wants to bury.

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