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The playing fields

Updated December 14, 2017


THE electoral battles of India are fought on the playing fields of Pakistan. Once again, this time in the Gujarat state elections, the dog-eared Pakistani card is being played to reincarnate Indian nationalism. It was not so long ago, during the Assam state elections, that Assamese were warned of a threat from Pakistan, a distant enemy located over 2,000 kilometres away. Now it’s western Gujarat’s turn to be similarly intimidated.

Read: India should stop dragging Pakistan into its electoral debate, FO responds to Modi's allegations

To Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Pakistan is the equivalent of President Donald Trump’s numerous demons — North Korea, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Cuba, Mexico, and the Democrat party — all rolled into one. Trump may be afflicted by many headaches; Modi has only one migraine called Pakistan. He has tried numerous remedies, from bombastic rhetoric to boastful retaliation. He’s now veering towards a more potent prescription.

To sane Pakistanis and Indians, the recent deterioration in Indo-Pakistan relations is a cause for genuine concern. It is sliding from the inconceivable towards the inevitable. Indian Muslims — whether Bollywood superstars like Shahrukh Khan or poets like Javed Akhtar — have become inured to the all-too-frequent tests of their patriotism. Indian Sikhs have buried their dreams of Khalistan so deep that the murmur of its slogans will never again be heard. It’s now the turn of Indian Hindus. They are being called upon to abjure any contact with Pakistan to prove their Indian-ness.

To Modi, Pakistan is the equivalent of Trump’s numerous demons.

Since August 1947, three prominent Indians have worn the hair-shirt of Indo-Pakistan amity. Khushwant Singh believed in it to his dying day; he is dead. Kuldip Nayyar arched himself into a bridge to span the chasm; he is wise but wizened. Mani Shankar Aiyar has repeatedly risked his reputation to assert that the Indo-Pakistan bottle is half full, not half empty; the other day, unfortunately, he slipped on his own tongue.

Until a week ago, the BJP regarded Mani Aiyar with fear streaked with disdain. He uttered criticisms about its leadership that the Congress high command preferred to hear but not mouth. His friendship with the late Rajiv Gandhi and then Sonia Gandhi’s reliance on his judgement and experience were his armour. He knew Pakistan better than almost any other Indian (outside RAW). He wrote perceptive books and informative articles on Pakistan. He expressed himself lucidly and persuasively at think tanks whenever he detected the need to agitate the swill of stale verbiage. When in Pakistan, he spoke as a loyal Indian; in India, he spoke as any intelligent outspoken Pakistani would do — given a visa.

On Dec 6, Mr Aiyar hosted a dinner in his New Delhi home for the visiting ex-foreign minister of Pakistan Khurshid Kasuri, a fellow Oxonian. It was the sort of high-brow gathering where everyone speaks and no one listens. The next morning, Aiyar and Kasuri shared a common platform to discuss Indo-Pakistan relations. Carelessly, Mr Aiyar referred to Mr Modi as a ‘neech aadmi’. That did it. The BJP emptied its barrels at Mr Aiyar. He stayed on his feet, but was felled when his own protégé Rahul Gandhi (now Congress chief) ordered him to apologise to Prime Minister Modi. A second arrow shot into Aiyar’s other heel: he was suspended from his party’s membership.

For Mr Modi, an apology by Mr Aiyar was not enough. He has gone further and has given credence to a tweet (withdrawn immediately after being posted) reportedly by a retired senior Pakistani ex-serviceman suggesting that Mr Ahmed Patel should be Gujarat’s next chief minister. Modi called it “a matter of concern”, even though he knew that an obviously underemployed ex-serviceman could hardly ensure Mr Patel’s selection, no more than Trump could induce the British government to appoint his controversial friend Nigel Farage as UK’s ambassador to Washington.

Then, Mr Modi threw in a scorpion of suspicion. He claimed the dinner given by Mr Aiyar for Mr Kasuri was a conspiracy to subvert the elections in Gujarat, even when those present were prominent Indians: “former army chief Deepak Kapoor, former foreign minister K Natwar Singh, former diplomats Salman Haidar, TCA Raghavan, Sharat Sabharwal, K Shankar Bajpai and Chinmaya Gharekhan, former PM Manmohan Singh and former vice-president Hamid Ansari”. Do Guy Fawkes conspirators really meet with such a laughable lack of caution? Mr Aiyar should take comfort from Lord Halifax’s observation (in a slightly different context) that “the best party is but a conspiracy against the rest of the nation”.

For Pakistan, Mr Modi’s more sinister accusation is that his predecessor Manmohan Singh had wantonly ignored the advice of his specialists to order a surgical strike after the 26/11 Mumbai attack. Manmohan Singh’s caution had deep roots, for didn’t the ancient Roman poet Horace warn us that “force without wisdom falls of its own weight”?

The writer is an author.

Published in Dawn, December 14th, 2017