I’m going to do something that could take many of you by surprise but, possibly, offend some as well. It certainly goes against the grain of the present atmosphere in the country. It’s also not what you expect of an Indian journalist when he writes about a Pakistani politician. But that said and done I can’t resist what I’m about to do. So here goes.
I’m writing to praise Pakistan’s national security advisor, former finance and foreign minister, Sartaj Aziz. He has many sterling qualities which his opponents at home or his adversaries abroad would not deny: a quiet dignity, a pleasing manner, a quick intelligence and an appearance of honesty. However, the quality that took me by surprise and is the cause of my admiration is his astute handling of the press. Our politicians could learn a lot from him.
My story begins five days before the eventually aborted recent Indo-Pakistan talks. Although we had never met nor even spoken and I was, for all intents and purposes, a complete stranger, I rang to ask for an interview. Mr Aziz readily accepted. “We’ll do it after the talks are over and before I leave. The High Commission will give you the precise time.”
The High Commission, however, never called so on Saturday, the day before his scheduled arrival, I rang Mr Aziz again. This time he chortled, as if we were old friends. “Of course, I haven’t forgotten but am I coming to India?” Then, before I could reply, he added: “Don’t worry, if I do I’ll definitely give you an interview.” I believed him. A journalist knows when a politician isn’t fibbing!
However, in the end the talks got cancelled and Mr Aziz didn’t come. So on Sunday morning I rang to ask if he would do the interview by satellite. I thought he would jump at it but this time he didn’t immediately accept. I could tell he was considering whether this would be the right thing to do. The conversation lasted 10 minutes but when he asked “What time tomorrow?” I knew he had agreed.
Mr Aziz gave me 40 minutes. He sat down in front of the camera bang on time and answered whatever questions I put to him. The tension of the preceding days didn’t affect his manner or his tone even though it was clearly discernible from his answers.
The important point I want to make is that a top Pakistani politician was willing to give interviews to the Indian media, even after the climactic denouement 48 hours earlier when the talks collapsed amidst acrimony and bitterness. Would an Indian politician have agreed to speak to the Pakistani media in similar circumstances? As far as I know, that’s never happened.
Mr Aziz defended Pakistan’s position with cogent arguments, a mastery of detail and appeals to the practice of the past or the logic of the present situation. You might not have agreed with him — and I often didn’t — but what was undeniable and, consequently, impressive is he was willing to be questioned, answered unhesitatingly and, therefore, did what democrats should do: explain, persuade, and try to convince.
A week has passed but not a single member of Mr Modi’s government has spoken to us about the collapsed talks. Our ministers have felt no need to explain, leave aside justify — and forget all about the thought of answering critics. Yet a Pakistani minister did just this.
I believe that contrast speaks for itself.
(The views expressed are personal.)