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The uninterruptible spokesman

Publication Date : 31-05-2012


Whenever Mani Shankar Aiyar begins to speak on Indo-Pak relations, he opens his mouth and reveals, like Krishna, a universe of limitless possibilities.

He has impeccable credentials to talk on the subject. He served as Consul General of India in Karachi from 1978 to 1982, is the father of a daughter born in Pakistan and has visited Pakistan in many avatars — as union minister of panchayati raj in the days when Musharraf’s National Reconstruction Bureau was reforming the structure of our local government, as union cabinet minister for petroleum and natural gas to promote the Iran-Pakistan-India (Ipi) pipeline, and again for the ministry of youth affairs and sports.

He is today what Khushwant Singh and Kuldip Nayar once were: a proponent of Indo-Pak relations who can market the Indian viewpoint to Pakistani audiences and sell the latter’s viewpoint to Indians.

It is not an easy juggling act. During a visit in February this year, he found himself in the same talk show as the renegade Hafiz Saeed and returned home to be flayed by the Indian press for consorting with terrorists. This month, after his speech in Lahore on the "Problems and Prospects of Indo-Pak Relations", some reporter in a hurry misheard Mani’s description of Pakistan as a “modern” state and quoted him as saying it was a “model” state. It is just such a slip that swells his constituency of admirers in Pakistan and detractors in India.

Mani’s speeches, like those of Atal Behari Vajpayee, deserve to be heard, not read. But even on a re-reading of their cold text, they resonate with common sense, a clarity of ideas and a commitment to the cause of peace between India and Pakistan.

Is there an alternative to peace? Winston Churchill was once asked how he felt about old age. His sage response was: “I cannot complain — considering the alternative.”

Individuals grow old and die; nations grow older and lose their relevance. And as Mani said without actually saying so, Pakistan needs India if it is to retain its relevance in a regional context, just as India needs Pakistan if it is to enhance its relevance in global politics. How can India aspire to become a member of the UN Security Council when it cannot resolve local disputes with its neighbours? If one is to be accepted as a don anywhere, one needs to command respect in one’s own backyard.

Could that have been the reason that India was not invited to participate in the recent summit of world leaders held in Chicago, a city as identified with mafia dons as Los Angeles is with synthetic angels? Azerbaijan was invited, Iceland was there, Luxembourg — which no one can locate on a map without using a magnifying glass — was there. Even Pakistan, clutching a last-minute invitation, was there with over fifty countries — except the two that matter most in the region, India and Iran.

The Ipi pipeline had been a pet project of Mani’s since he was India’s minister for petroleum and gas. He was eventually removed for his over-zealous advocacy of it. So when he spoke of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (Tapi) pipeline deal being signed suddenly by all the four countries, he mirrored the incredulity of his audience.

Stripped of its veneer, the Tapi deal is only as good as Vladimir Putin’s interest in it. Putin controls Russia, and the Russian government controls Gazprom, which is to Russia’s energy strategy what General Motors once was to US industry. Not for nothing has Gazprom been described in Russia as "the government’s wallet". It is also Putin’s purse.

Putin has been re-elected Russian president until 2016. President Hamid Karzai’s present term coincides with the Isaf withdrawal in 2014 and, although technically debarred from serving a third term, Karzai’s fortunes depend on President Obama’s re-election campaign. President Asif Zardari hopes to be re-elected next year and stay in the seat until 2018.

In India, whatever its electoral mishaps in states such as Uttar Pradesh, the Congress party is most likely to lead the next coalition government. For the first time in its post-independence history, India has both two superpower dons — Russia and the US — on its side. How can it not want to become a third?

Both publicly and privately, Mani welcomed the prospect of a visit by Manmohan Singh to Pakistan. There are some sentimentalists who might regard such a visit as nostalgia, a political equivalent of Citizen Kane’s Rosebud — the search for his childhood. Mani takes a more positive view.

His advice is that Manmohan Singh should use the occasion to sign off on a document that would encapsulate the outcome of the Indo-Pak composite dialogue that has been conducted in open secret over the past 15 years by retired admirals and generals, diplomats and bureaucrats. When in office, they used to provoke each other in public; now, they placate each other in private.

Mani’s solution — typically Mani — is to place a table at the Wagah border at which anyone from both sides could come and discuss anything and everything. No agenda, no positions, no posturing, just an “uninterrupted, uninterruptible dialogue.”

The idea is tempting but impractical, as Baroness Thatcher once told a Pakistani who suggested that Great Britain should re-possess Pakistan. What is needed is the admission in both India and Pakistan that while we may sit on opposite sides of a table — we may reside on opposite sides of the same street — nevertheless we are on the same side in the war that rages in our neighbourhood against ignorance, illiteracy and religious intolerance. Dons do not always understand that.

The writer is an author.


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