The meeting referred to by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his poll speech on Sunday to allege Pakistan’s ‘hand’ in the Gujarat election was attended by, among others, a former Indian Army chief, a former foreign secretary and diplomats who had served in the Indian High Commission in Pakistan, sources said.
The dinner meeting was held on December 6 at Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar’s residence in Delhi during the visit of Pakistan’s former foreign affairs minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri to India. The following day, Kasuri was present at a talk hosted by Ananta Centre, a Delhi-based think-tank, titled, ‘The Current State of India-Pakistan Relations’.
According to sources, those who attended Aiyar’s dinner and the discussions that preceded it included former Army chief Deepak Kapoor, former foreign minister K Natwar Singh, and former diplomats Salman Haidar, TCA Raghavan, Sharat Sabharwal, K Shankar Bajpai and Chinmaya Gharekhan, among others. Bajpai, Raghavan and Sabharwal had served as Indian High Commissioners to Pakistan. Former PM Manmohan Singh and former vice-president Hamid Ansari were also present at the dinner.
General Kapoor confirmed he was part of the meeting at Aiyar’s residence. “Yes, I was part of the meeting and we discussed nothing more than India-Pakistan relations,” Kapoor told The Indian Express. Kapoor was the 23rd Chief of Army Staff and retired in March 2010.
The Indian Express contacted five of those who were at the dinner, including Aiyar, of whom four said it was a get-together of “those who have known Kasuri or served in Pakistan as diplomats” and that “it had nothing to do with domestic politics.” Only Kapoor spoke on record, with the others saying that they did not want to be dragged into a political slugfest during the election. Aiyar refused to comment.
While addressing an election rally at Palanpur in Gujarat on Sunday, Modi alleged that Pakistan was interfering in the Gujarat Assembly polls. To drive home his point, the Prime Minister said top leaders of the Congress had met leaders from Pakistan at Aiyar’s residence. “There were media reports yesterday about a meeting at Mani Shankar Aiyar’s house. It was attended by Pakistan’s high commissioner, Pakistan’s former foreign minister, India’s former vice-president and former prime minister Manmohan Singh,” Modi said, adding that the meeting went on for three hours. “The next day, Mani Shankar Aiyar said Modi was ‘neech’. This is a serious matter… And, after that meeting, people of Gujarat, backward communities, poor people and Modi were insulted. Don’t you think such events raise doubts,” Modi asked.
On Saturday, December 9, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy tweeted: “Did Pak Ambassador meet MS Aiyar and three other Congi leaders at MSA residence five days ago on Gujarat strategy? Palace coup in offing?”
However, those who were at the dinner insisted that it was a completely private event, during which issues related to India-Pakistan ties were discussed. One of them said, “It was a dinner for those who dealt with Pakistan. I can certainly say it was not linked to domestic politics one way or other.”
“There were around 20 people and we talked about terrorism, Hafiz Saeed and Kashmir etc,” said one of the participants.
Sources said Manmohan Singh was invited for the discussions that preceded the dinner, but he agreed to simply attend the dinner.
Aiyar, who has been an actively involved in track-II processes between India and Pakistan, had sent out the dinner invitation almost a month ago. Aiyar had served as consul general in Karachi and has been an advocate of talks between the two countries. Kasuri, who was foreign minister during Pervez Musharraf’s term, was key to the Musharraf-era initiatives on Kashmir, when Manmohan Singh was prime minister of India.
The following day, at the event hosted by the Anant Centre, Aiyar said the challenging involved in nation-building was related to integrating the Muslim community into the rest of the country. “Can we integrate them (Muslim)? Can we do it if there is a hostile relationship with Pakistan? We are damaging our own nationhood by enabling Pakistan to continue being considered as an enemy territory for no reason other than that it is inhabited and created by Muslims,” Aiyar said. He also said Muslims in India should not be equated with Pakistan. Kasuri was part of this gathering.