The prime minister risks losing valuable Track II and intellectual inputs into the making of his government’s Pakistan policy by casting aspersions on a private dinner hosted by India’s one-time Consul General in Karachi, Mani Shankar Aiyar, for a visiting former foreign minister from Pakistan. It is well-known now that among the guests at Aiyar’s dinner for his college-mate from Cambridge’s Trinity Hall, Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, were most of the Indian high commissioners to Islamabad since PV Narasimha Rao’s prime ministership, even earlier in one instance.
The guests also included a foreign secretary who dealt with Pakistan during one of the most volatile periods in the bilateral relationship, a former deputy high commissioner and a joint secretary who dealt with Pakistan and was such a thorn in Islamabad’s side that there were celebrations at the Pakistani High Commission in Chanakyapuri when he left his post.
Without doubt, all these honourable men would have walked out of Aiyar’s dinner if any conspiracy was being hatched on that occasion to influence assembly elections in Gujarat or to anoint any individual Congressman as the choice for chief ministership. That is what diplomats are trained to do from the time they are inducted into the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie for their foundation course.
For years after the 1962 war with China, Brajesh Mishra, a long-time Charge d’Affaires in Beijing, did just that at every state dinner in the Great Hall of the People whenever the Chinese leadership said or did something that reflected on the integrity and pride of India. There is not a shadow of doubt that a retired army chief who was present at Aiyar’s dinner would have done the same.
By exposing men who have creditably served the nation to controversy — in this instance, also individuals who largely avoid the limelight specifically related to their substantive dealings with Pakistan — the country risks their absence from such private, informal and often valuable interactions. The Pakistanis they interact with in such settings are sensible men, not cut from the same cloth as Hafiz Saeed, the terrorist. Nor are such visitors at the core of Inter-Services Intelligence plots to destabilise India.
There were no pow-wows at Aiyar’s house, no dark-corner discussions. All exchanges were for all to see and hear in a structured manner designed to be creative and constructive. Some of the former diplomats who spoke their mind before dinner were heard with rapt attention. Manmohan Singh did not even stay for dinner. Former External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh too left early.
On the night of the dinner in question, the area around Aiyar’s residence was teeming with personnel of the Intelligence Bureau (IB). This was not because Manmohan Singh was visiting. Flat-footed policemen of the IB stand out in marked contrast to the smart Special Protection Group that guards former PMs.
None of these retired diplomats are anxious to get caught in the web of IB surveillance. When a serving prime minister doubts the propriety of attendance at a dinner where Pakistanis are present, the IB will not sit back and presume the innocence of any of the guests. Retired civil servants need no refresher course on surveillance.
It is a sign of our times that this writer was recently at a think-tank event in New Delhi where an aggressive crowd broke in and disrupted the meeting. Some members of the audience had to protect the speaker, a visiting foreign minister. He was not even from Pakistan. The charges levelled by the PM risk providing fodder for goons, self-appointed patriots and gratuitous nationalists to step up similar actions. Bright minds who could contribute to policy on Pakistan or China would not want to attend or speak at such meetings, lest they be accused of impropriety or worse.
The ruling party has lately begun a disinformation campaign that the external affairs ministry is the sole repository of wisdom on foreign policy. This kills creativity in strategic thought, especially since not a single new idea on Pakistan has emerged from the government recently. This is in stark contrast with the diplomatic output on Pakistan from Washington, Moscow, Ankara or Beijing.
It was a refreshing change that new ideas flowed during the pre-dinner discussions at Aiyar’s residence. Pakistan is changing, the contexts in which Indo-Pakistan relations were conducted are changing and the need is ever greater for South Asia’s peace and progress that new ideas are not stymied. Allegations made without thought of their consequences do not augur well for the free flow of strategic ideas.