A profile in courage: Mani Shankar Aiyar on Pak-India relations and what could have been

A friend and colleague from across the border reflects on Indian politician and former diplomat Mani Shankar Aiyar’s personality, career and methods.
Published September 15, 2023

I received a copy of Mani Shankar Aiyar’s latest book, Memoirs of a Maverick, with the following inscription: “To Khurshid, in remembrance of six decades of friendship.”

Our friendship actually goes back six decades plus two years. In fact in 2011, which was the 50th anniversary of the Class of 1961 (Trinity Hall, Cambridge), we were both honoured by our college to speak at the ‘Class Reunion’ on the Pakistan-India peace process.

Mani’s memoir covers the first 50 years of his life, but I have no doubt that he will eventually write about the next three decades of his very eventful life too, which includes the time when we were both cabinet ministers in our respective countries and worked together to improve relations between Pakistan and India.

My first impression on meeting him was that the volume of his voice was quite disproportionate to the size of his body. Only later did I realise that the resonance in his voice was also a reflection of the clarity of his thoughts and strength of his conscience.

He writes in his book under ‘Cambridge at First Sight’: “A gong sounded and we filed into ‘hall’ together (Cambridge jargon for ‘dinner’). As I worked my way through a tasteless piece of unspiced meat and boiled vegetables, little did I know that my first meal in Cambridge was in the distinguished company of the man who was to become the best foreign minister Pakistan has ever had!” This remark could get me into trouble with some extremist elements here.

Mani and I have been friends ever since, and I thought there was an unstated ‘competition’ between us as to who would make it to becoming foreign minister first. It so happened that when I was foreign minister of Pakistan, Mani was India’s petroleum minister.

I have always had a feeling that he should have made it to the foreign ministership of his country, given his insight, deep understanding of international relations and the fact that he travelled from the foreign service to electoral politics (not a common phenomenon). With his empathy and deep understanding of Pakistan-India relations, in my opinion, he would have been India’s finest foreign minister.

Mani is, however, far too bright and outspoken for his own good.

He further writes: “A bond was created when I said I was born in Lahore, Khurshid’s hometown. Many, many years later — fifty at least — Khurshid was to confide in me that the reason he had walked up to greet me was that he had never before met a Hindu! He had picked, I told him sourly, a rather poor example.” I need to clarify this statement. My father was a top lawyer and politician and had many Hindu clients and political colleagues. What I meant to say or should have said was that he was the first Hindu of my own age that I had come across and with whom I can interact.

Mani’s frankness, honesty and courage, of which I have been a witness all my life, comes across very early in his memoirs: “My parents’ wedding was both unusual and a disaster. It was unusual because it was held in the bridegroom’s house, not the bride’s, for my poor mother had neither home nor family to ‘give her away’. It was a disaster, because they had hardly entered the nuptial chamber when my father announced that he had really wanted to marry my mother’s sister. It was a blow from which the marriage never recovered.”

Mani has courted controversy throughout his life. This seems to have got him into trouble even before he joined the foreign service as questions were raised about his alleged membership of the Communist Party in Britain.

To this ‘allegation’, he responded to none other than President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan that he was not and could not have been a member, since he was not a British citizen. He traces the ups and downs of this episode, his hopes being alternatively raised and then dashed to the ground. His mother’s connections seem to have stood him in good stead and Mani concludes the entire episode by saying, “Nehru entirely endorsed this, adding he too had heard good reports of me. Thus, under Prime Minister Nehru’s personal signature, I crossed my personal Rubicon on 24 October 1963. It had been worth the trauma I had undergone to become the first IFS officer — since the initial formation of the IFS back in 1946-47 to be admitted to the service under Jawaharlal Nehru’s own hands.” (Mani was lucky that Nehru himself was a Fabian socialist). One of his friends commented that “they found you to be a Marxist — but of a Groucho variety”. Mani further says, “India under Nehru was truly a democracy. Alas! Democracy is disappearing even when I write these words.”

I have been struck by the pace of efforts in India to delegitimise Nehru. In Pakistan, democracy has always been a fragile plant and our leadership too has committed huge blunders since Independence for which we are currently paying the price — but there is still hope here, since fortunately, no one, not even the religious parties, has dared to question Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s legacy as the father of Pakistan’s independence. He is universally referred to as ‘Quaid-e-Azam’ and his personality is a beacon of hope for all Pakistanis who believe in an inclusive Pakistan.

Mani is exceptionally courageous for a politician. Politicians across the world are notoriously self-serving and hardly ever stick their neck out to say something that would displease the dominant leader. This is more so in South Asia.

When I was foreign minister, I wanted to improve relations between our two countries through various means. I was particularly keen on oil and gas connectivity and would often refer to the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) as pipelines of peace.

Providentially, Mani was petroleum minister at the time, and I would often talk to him about this. In my more idealistic moments, I would even talk of an Iranian gas pipeline passing through Pakistan, north towards China and south towards India, which I thought would be the first step towards the realisation of the ‘Asian Century’.

Mani was equally convinced. The Americans were, however, unhappy and Manmohan Singh suddenly referred to the IPP as an un-bankable project. As Mani’s views were at variance with those of his own prime minister, Mani soon lost his job — but was retained in the cabinet, Manmohan Singh being the gentlest of the gentlemen I have met. Mani continued as the minister of panchayati raj — system of local self-government of villages in rural India — and other portfolios.

In this respect, Mani and I share similar problems. Although he is, of course, much more rash than I am, he has not had to undergo imprisonment as I have during both Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s tenure and General Zia ul-Haq’s. Under Zia, I was put in a condemned prisoner’s cell for six months and during the heyday of Nawaz Sharif, I had to resign from the National Assembly due to my opposition to the ‘Shariat Bill’ (to cut a long story short, my resignation was torn to bits in a stormy parliamentary party meeting).

If Mani has understood the role of the Pakistan Army, this is because he is not only a former officer of the foreign service but also a prolific reader and writer, which gives him deep insight into the Pakistani psyche. He has mentioned many times how Pakistan-India relations have improved under President Ayub Khan, Ziaul Haq and Musharraf.

In my experience, during the course of discussions on Kashmir spanning over approximately five years, the inputs from the army leadership were neither rhetorical nor laced with ideological spin often associated with mid-level and even fairly senior army officers, but invariably supported by reason and informed perspectives.

However, some clarification is in order. First, irrespective of its form, the role of the government as an institution is critical in high-level decisions involving both civilian and military elements. Since from the outset, our government was seeking a solution of the Kashmir dispute on reasonable and fair grounds, subsequent engagement focused on the objective rather than attempting to derail the process.

This does not mean that the politicians do not wish to promote good relations. In fact, every major political leader, while in office, advocated good relations with India and in my book, I have traced the statements of these leaders right from Liaquat Ali Khan to Feroze Khan Noon, ZA Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan. Many of Mani’s speeches also recognise this fact. I am sure when he records his experiences from 1991 to date, he will be able to say this with great clarity as he has already done in his speeches many times and his review of my book.

The mischievous smile — depicted very accurately on the cover of Memoirs of a Maverick — is representative of the humour, wit and one-liners which sometimes get him into trouble. For example, he narrated to me a story about Natwar Singh, my former counterpart from India.

I have always greatly enjoyed Natwar Singh’s company, and he and I were able to do a lot together in order to improve relations between our countries. He is a gracious host and a great ‘raconteur’.

To Natwar Singh’s misfortune, however, they both went to the same college (though perhaps a decade apart). According to Mani, Natwar Singh preceded him and wrote in the St Stephens College guest register: “I am what I am today because of St Stephen’s”, to which Mani riposted: “Why blame the college?”

Mani sometimes seems to have a strange sense of humour. I had the misfortune of asking for his advice on whether I should visit Bombay on the invitation of Sudhendra Kulkarni for the launch of my book Neither a Hawk, Nor a Dove after the Shiv Sena had threatened us with dire consequences if I dared to land in Bombay. I asked Mani what I should do. He said that I ought to go. I concluded that as my friend, Mani anticipated no danger to my person. He, however, told me that the Shiv Sena had threatened him similarly and he had to be protected by a huge police posse. I was not sure if he was serious, and asked him whether he was encouraging me to go or dissuading me. Nevertheless, my visit to Bombay was quite adventurous and helped promote my book sales. Perhaps Mani was right after all.

‘This is an enemy country, right?’

He quotes his wife asking him while returning from one of the many scores or hundreds of parties that he may have attended as Consul General in Karachi. “This is an enemy country, right?” He adds, “This was a question that haunted me through my three years in Karachi and continues to haunt me. Is Pakistan an ‘enemy’ country?”

According to Mani, “One of the most important lessons I learnt in Pakistan was that Indian hostility, or even the apprehension of such hostility, is what unites Pakistanis behind their government, military or civilian … Across a wide spectrum of Karachi opinion, I found a clear willingness, indeed an ardent desire, to see differences with India settled. I searched for tell-tale signs from business barons to barbers and bootblacks; from society ladies in expensive chiffons and ‘suited-booted’ boxwallahs to butlers and domestic servants; from politicians who had held high office to purveyors of news and comment; from intellectuals to poets and writers; from artists of different genres; from street vendors to shopkeepers; from English-speaking pukka sahibs to die-hard Islamic nationalists; from the religious minorities, ranging through rich ones like the Parsis and Hindu millionaires, as well as, of course, the poor Hindu haaris (sharecroppers) of Sindhi wadehras to a number of teachers in Karachi’s reputed private schools and government schools; and from the sophisticates of Karachi to those who thronged the Indian visa area. All of them wanted peace; none was a warmonger, not even the ‘Islam-pasand’. Bhutto’s 1965 call for ‘a thousand years’ war’ with India had no takers.”

I cannot improve on this since I share his views but would be remiss if I did not add a word of caution. There is both good and bad in the history of our countries, which could be exploited by demagogues or statesmen depending on their agendas. After all, on 10 occasions we have faced war or near-war situations, the last war being in Kargil 1999 and a near-war situation being the Balakot airstrike.

Mani speaks very fondly of his relationship with Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister. Speaking of his first interaction with Rajiv Gandhi, he says: “…I briefly summarised my experience of Pakistani public opinion and said I thought an emotional breakthrough was the prime necessity, what I called a ‘goodwill blitzkrieg’ … Rajiv Gandhi, I said, held no formal office other than being a backbench MP but, of course, the whole world knew that he was the Indian PM’s son. Hence, if he visited Pakistan, nothing he said would be binding on the Government of India; yet, as it was the atmospherics that needed to be set right, I gave him the example of Crown Prince Edward’s highly successful personal visit to France that led to the Anglo-French entente cordiale of 1904 … I assured him, (he) would draw huge crowds and he would be received with wild enthusiasm. This rapturous welcome would be beamed into every drawing room in India and Pakistan and would open the way, through negotiations, to a possible entente cordiale between India and Pakistan. He seemed interested but non-committal.” The visit did not take place, but Mani was right because the Indian and Pakistani psyche likes grand gestures.

The ‘goodwill blitzkrieg’ that Mani talks about was achieved during Musharraf’s visit to Delhi in 2001. There was 24/7 coverage of President Musharraf’s visit. All and sundry pointed out that he was a son of Delhi who was coming back. They discussed and described in great detail the history of his ancestral home in Delhi, ‘Neharwali Haveli’, and even tracked down his old nanny, who had fond memories of taking care of him as a baby. It was surprising to see how the man who was accused by the Indian media of being the main person behind Kargil managed to attract such positive media attention.

According to Mani, “I have never really understood why Indian diplomacy has only rarely and fitfully considered mining this treasure trove of goodwill to promote good relations. While we are sure-footed in Paraguay, we stumble in neighbouring Pakistan! … The common or garden Pakistani not only speaks the same language as us, and shares much of the same tehzeeb (culture), they love Bollywood and its music and laugh at the same jokes and befriend us everywhere outside the subcontinent. Almost everyone who has served in Pakistan acknowledges their personal goodwill towards Indians.” Indeed, there are similarities between the cultures of our two countries as I write in Neither a Hawk, Nor a Dove: “The culturally dissimilar people of the subcontinent are united by the shared experiences of being burned by the summer sun, the sheer joy of monsoon rains breaking the summer heat, and memories of various foreign invasions.”

Peace process should be ‘uninterrupted and uninterruptible’

Mani advocates a peace process that must proceed uninterrupted because any interruption converts the India-Pakistan dialogue into a game of snakes and ladders: the mouth of the snake swallowing up all the climbing of ladders, requiring the negotiators to start again from square one.

That is why, he says, he has been advocating the need for a restructuring of the dialogue to make it ‘uninterrupted and uninterruptible’. I have, of course, advocated the same for years and would like to point out that the nature of Pakistan-India relations is such that in the absence of positive stimuli, they do not remain on an even keel. If there is no dialogue, a near certainty prevails that relations will move on a downward trajectory.

Mani writes: “Conflict, and the management of conflict, is the realpolitik focus. And that is why people-to-people contacts, in regard to visas, films, media, trade, tourism or cultural exchanges or even pilgrimages, are the first to be sacrificed whenever governments want to bare their fangs. Sustaining distrust between governments is easier than the patient building of trust between people.”

Of course, Mani is right. During my tenure as foreign minister, I felt that the Pakistan-India relationship could be made more predictable and less crisis-prone by complementing governmental efforts with much greater people-to-people interactions.

Our countries face many common challenges, not the least of which is climate change which has wreaked havoc in large parts of the subcontinent and these can only be effectively addressed by both collectively. This is why Mani is right when he refers to the need for an ‘uninterrupted and uninterruptible’ dialogue.

This article has been published in collaboration with The Wire.