NEW DELHI: The seemingly blow hot blow cold relationship between the Pakistani and Indian prime ministers took a break from the tedium in Kathmandu last year when Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi vanished for an hour to hold a quiet meeting, which was so secret that it was deniable, a new book was quoted as claiming on Tuesday.
This Unquiet Land — Stories from India’s Fault Lines by veteran TV journalist Barkha Dutt is due for release on Wednesday, The Hindustan Time said.
According to the paper, the secret and deniable meeting took place on the sidelines of a regional summit hosted by Nepal where the two leaders were in attendance though they appeared to keep away from each other.
“A year ago all that the people saw was a quick handshake but away from TV cameras (they) held an hour-long secret meeting on the sidelines of the Saarc summit in Kathmandu,” the Hindustan Time said quoting from the book.
Both the leaders shared their constraints while agreeing they needed more time and greater political space to move forward with public engagements, the paper said.
The alleged meeting was facilitated by Indian steel magnate Sajjan Jindal, brother of former Congress MP Naveen Jindal.
Unknown to the media and certainly the public, both Mr Modi and Mr Sharif had found someone to “keep them connected even when things got difficult”, Ms Dutt writes, describing Sajjan Jindal as an informal messenger serving as a “covert bridge” between the two leaders.
Ministry of external affairs spokesperson Vikas Swarup did not comment. Nor was Mr Jindal available for his response.
During their first meeting when Sharif came to Delhi for Modi’s swearing-in — the two PMs decided to keep the reins of the relationship in their hands, the paper said quoting the usually clued in journalist.
“However, they agreed that it could be useful to talk informally through a mutual acquaintance they both felt comfortable with.”
The acquaintance was Mr Jindal, who hosted a tea party for Mr Sharif after his meeting with Mr Modi in Delhi. When Dutt went to meet the Pakistani leader at the Capital’s Taj Mansingh hotel, she saw Mr Jindal escort Mr Sharif’s son Hussain for lunch.
“It was no secret that Indian steelmakers, both state and private players, were looking to foster friendly relations with Pakistan; they needed this to happen so they could ferry iron ore from Afghanistan by road across Pakistan from where it could be shipped to ports in western and southern India,” Dutt writes.
But, Mr Jindal’s ties with Mr Sharif, she says, appeared to have gone beyond that of a businessman with the head of a government — and the two had become “confidants”.
The proximity was at play in Kathmandu, where the Saarc summit was held on Nov 26 and 27. Mr Modi called up Mr Jindal from Nepal and asked him to take the earliest flight to the Nepali capital.
“Jindal was asked to discreetly reach out to his ‘friend’ across the border,” writes Ms Dutt. The two leaders then met quietly “in the privacy of Mr Jindal’s hotel room”, where they spent an hour together.
According to the paper’s brief from the book, Mr Modi — hinting at the upcoming Jammu and Kashmir elections — indicated while he was keen, “circumstances” did not permit him to reopen formal channels.
Mr Sharif spoke about “constrictions” imposed on him by the security establishment and how his “negotiating power with the army had been gradually whittled away”.
“This under-the radar encounter paved the way for Modi to openly reach out to Sharif two months later through a phone call that was positioned as an innocuous good-luck call for the World Cup,” Dutt writes.
Her account reinforces a well-known fact — domestic politics often determines the course of the fragile bilateral relationship, the Hindustan Times said.
Ms Dutt’s own assessment of Mr Jindal’s role is that it did not involve negotiating “tricky matters of geo-politics”.
“He was more like a covert bridge that connected them if either wanted to reach out to the other side sans protocol or publicity.” And, because Mr Jindal’s role was off the record, it came with plausible deniability, the paper said.
Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2015