Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on the Gujarat campaign trail, made the first mistake, though in his mind he must have considered it to be an electoral masterstroke, when cried out that Mani Shankar Aiyar had a meeting with Pakistanis at his house and he was plotting for Mr Modi’s defeat in the Gujarat Assembly election. It was a perfect rabble-rouser’s gambit, however weak it may be in terms of facts. The first strange, or perhaps not so strange, fact is that the government’s intelligence agencies must have gathered the information that there was a dinner at Mr Aiyar’s home with the representatives of Pakistan. There was no other way that the Prime Minister could have known about this private dinner because neither Mr Aiyar nor the others who were there issued a press statement about it. The government’s snoopers could not have known the details of what was talked about at the party. So the Prime Minister simply wanted to use it to his advantage by alleging a plot.
It was natural that the Pakistan foreign office, which is always daggers drawn, did not let a remark in a stump speech pass, and countered it with a sharp political statement, mocking India’s democratic squabbles. The story became a little more complicated when former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was one of the invitees at Mr Aiyar’s dinner, issued a public statement condemning Prime Minister Modi’s allegation by categorically stating that the Gujarat election was not the point of discussion at the dinner.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley joined the fray and tried to give it a legal twist by questioning the rationale of the private dinner, calling it a “political misadventure” and accusing the Congress, the main Opposition party, of deviating from national policy on Pakistan of not talking with the antagonistic neighbour as Pakistan-based terrorist acts against India continued. It was a bizarre counter-attack. First, the dinner at Mr Aiyar’s place was not a venue for official or non-official talks with Pakistan. Mr Jaitley was elevating the private dinner to a diplomatic level. There were more Indians at the dinner, as seen form the list released by Dr Singh, than Pakistanis. The only guest of significance was the former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Ahmed Kasuri. The presence of the Pakistan high commissioner could be nothing more than nominal. Either the government’s surveillance team gathered enough information about the meeting which could be incriminating against the attendees, or the party in power just wanted to kick up a political controversy which is justified.
But Mr Jaitley has no ground to stand on because talks and meetings of the informal and formal kind continue between the two sides, both at the governmental and non-governmental levels. To term a meeting with Pakistani representatives at a private dinner as a “misadventure” is stretching the truth to breaking point, quite in the footsteps of the Prime Minister. And to further describe it as deviating from the national foreign policy line smacks of fascism. It is only in a fascist set-up that what the State says or does is held sacrosanct and those deviating from it are considered enemies. Unfortunately, there is a dangerous consensus on foreign policy issues among all major political parties in India. This excludes the needed debate and the exploration of alternative views.
Mr Aiyar is a hopeless peacenik on the issue of India-Pakistan relations, but he is not as woolly-headed as he is made out to be. He is as much aware of the hard realities on both, and he is in a minority in his own party and among his own liberal set. There are too many hawks among the diplomatic and liberal waterholes of New Delhi, and Mr Aiyar is not the sole voice. It will be futile and foolish to turn Mr Aiyar into a national security threat.
Law and justice minister Ravi Shankar Prasad too umbrage at the Pakistan foreign office spokesman’s statement which was provoked by Prime Minister Modi’s hysterical outburst. There was not much that Mr Prasad could do by way of damage control except make the bland statement that India knows how to conduct its elections, which is a non-sequitur.
On December 18, when the Gujarat Assembly poll results along with that of Himachal Pradesh are announced, this little controversy over Pakistan in the context of the Gujarat election will sink into irretrievable oblivion. In the meanwhile, Mr Modi has created enough ruckus, and his Cabinet colleagues, Mr Jaitley and Mr Prasad, waded into it, without much effect.
But the basic question could and should still nag the minds of general observers. What was the discussion at Mr Aiyar’s dinner all about? Was it just a dinner hosted for Mr Kasuri, who flies in and out of India quite regularly, and India-Pakistan issues were just a conversation point, besides gentle banter? Mr Aiyar has his plans for India-Pakistan détente, which are unlikely to unfold at any time in the near future. The guest list is a little too weighted to raise suspicions that there was serious discussion. As a citizen of a democratic India, Mr Aiyar has every right to host such a dinner and even set a serious agenda.
Prime Minister Modi and the government would have been on stronger ground if they had just referred to the unusual dinner meeting and not committed the gaffe of the dinner being an occasion to plot the defeat of the BJP in the Gujarat elections or the overthrow of Mr Modi himself. Had the finance minister just raised a query about what the dinner talks were all about, then it would have made better sense than to turn it into a deviatory act.Now that the private dinner has become a public controversy, one of the participants could well reveal the general tenor of the conversation. It is more likely that Mr Kasuri might be the one who will do it rather than his Indian hosts. And it is but natural that the Pakistan high commissioner must have sent his confidential dispatch to Islamabad about the mood at the dinner table and the inconsequential chatter that accompanied the food.
, which must have been interesting and good enough.