“Unki mushkil samjho," Atal Bihari Vajpayee once told a middle-rung officer now in the top echelons of the Indian Foreign Service. Looking back, the officer recalled the way “that one line changed my perspective, my thinking and approach to my trade”.
Familiarity, inter-personal chemistry, courtesy and a sense of history are the stuff of which diplomacy’s made. One can be rational without being generous. Firm without coming across as ruthless.
Vajpayee had these traits. Manmohan Singh possesses them in no small measure. As John F. Kennedy once said: “Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.”
The BJP leader could put himself in his interlocutor’s shoes. “He’d never make impossible demands in the interest of a durable relationship,” said the officer of Vajpayee’s willingness to engage with Pakistan despite obvious setbacks and betrayals.
Vajpayee knew that dialogue’s an instrument that cannot be abandoned — not permanently in any case. It can at best be calibrated to enhance its value at another juncture, as was done after spells of coercive diplomacy post-Kargil and the attack on Parliament.
The former Premier’s tenacity for peace helped him develop a constituency in Pakistan and a personal chemistry with General Pervez Muharraf, the architect of Kargil who later acquiesced to the watershed 2004 accord against use of Pakistani territory for terrorism directed at India.
The Lok Sabha polls the Congress won later that year flummoxed Musharraf so much that he called Vajpayee. “Yeh kya ho gaya,” he asked. “Jamhooriyat mein aksar aisa ho jata hai,” the BJP leader explained to the military ruler unfamiliar with the uncertainties of popular politics.
Bus that hit the roadblock
Vajpayee was as comfortable with Sharif as he was with Musharraf. The idea behind the historic bus-ride he took to Lahore germinated at the foodie Premiers’ 1998 luncheon meeting in New York. In the talks to make travel easier between the two countries, Sharif reminisced having crossed over in a car from Wagah for the 1982 Asian Games. He was then a minister in the government of Pakistani Punjab.
“Those were the days. We can rediscover those days,” said a wistful Sharif. As recapitulated in his book A Call To Honour, Jaswant Singh, then minister for external affairs, forwarded to the Premiers his Joint Secretary (in charge of Pakistan) Vivek Katju’s impromptu proposal for a Delhi-Lahore bus service.
Thus was laid the foundation of the spectacular Lahore soiree. Kargil cut short the 1999 peace caravan. But the historicity of the initiative by the leader of a party that stood for Akhand Bharat cannot be disputed.
They aren’t exactly the same people — Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. But in his first term, the incumbent took forward his predecessor’s good work and was arguably a whisker away from cracking the Kashmir imbroglio. Then Musharraf ran out of luck at home and Mumbai happened — blowing to pieces the painstakingly done peace-edifice.
Given his share of disillusionment with Islamabad, Singh isn’t about to embark on a bus journey for a mushaira in Lahore. But like Vajpayee, he’s again willing to give dialogue a chance. The minimalist agenda he firmed up with Yusuf Raza Gilani at Thimpu is about ascertaining reasons for the sorry state of bilateral relations and finding ways to reduce the trust deficit.
New Delhi has been careful not to peg expectations high. The approach is cognizant of and influenced by sceptics who either questioned the timing of the talks or flaunted Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” wisdom to suggest that Islamabad be dealt the way the US dealt with the Soviets.
But can one verify without trusting, as so often argued by the evergreen dialogue-protagonist Mani Shankar Aiyar. As S.M. Krishna readied for his first full-fledged bilateral engagement with Pak counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the pro-talks refrain drew heavily upon another Kennedy quote: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
What makes Krishna’s task difficult is the popular Indian impatience with Islamabad. He’s the first foreign minister from the south of the Vindhyas to visit Pakistan after Narasimha Rao, the polyglot who swept his hosts off their feet by his command over Urdu in the early 1980s.
But being a Kannadiga shouldn’t be a disadvantage for Krishna. Many among the best diplomats who served in Pakistan came from southern India: J.N. Dikshit, Shivshankar Menon, Mani Shankar Aiyar, G. Parthasarathy, and M.K. Bhadrakumar. Cerebrally and professionally, they were no less than the likes of S.K. Lambah, the PM’s special envoy for back-channel talks whose ties with some of the leading families of Pakistan preceded the Partition.
Imaginative thinking is the key to building chemistry. Quite illustrative of it is a relatively junior Indian mission official’s exchange with the then Pak Foreign Secretary Shahryar Khan in the early 1990s. Khan was curious as to why the official, from a southern state, addressed him as Sir in the course of the meeting. “Because you could have been my foreign secretary had you chosen to make India your home,” replied the official. Khan’s mother is from Bhopal’s royal family. He migrated to Pakistan in 1950.
It shouldn’t be a problem for Krishna to strike a chord with Qureshi, who, like him, has studied abroad and is, by Pakistani standards, fairly liberal in his outlook. Invoking history or shared interests is a good way of building a rapport. Examples: Manmohan Singh telling Gilani that his forefathers helped build the golden temple; Pranab Mukherjee talking about Khurshid Kasuri’s grandfather, who led the Congress in pre-Partition Punjab.
For Krishna, however, the time isn’t as much for bonhomie as for some plain-speak on terrorism. Trust cannot be rebuilt through sweet nothings. It requires ‘verifiable action’ against elements incessantly raining violence and vituperative language on India.
About time that Islamabad drew a leaf out of Vajpayee’s book to faithfully walk the path to peace.
Tid-bits of hope