What really happened at the not-at-all-secret meeting with former Pakistani officials at Mani Shankar Aiyar’s house.
When Congress party chief Rahul Gandhi threw Mani Shankar Aiyar to the wolves after he described Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a ‘neech kism ka aadmi‘, he presented Modi with a juicy target. On December 8, at a rally in Banaskantha, Modi alleged that after he became prime minister in 2014, Aiyar had travelled to Pakistan to get him “removed” to improve relations between the two countries. Modi said the Congress had then tried to muffle the episode, and did not take any action against Aiyar.
Two days later, at a pre-election rally in Palanpur in Gujarat, he roared, “Now, news is that the Pakistan high commissioner, the foreign minister and Manmohan Singh met at his (Aiyar’s) house just before the Gujarat polls…This is a serious issue. I want to ask what was the reason for this secret meeting with Pakistanis”. To this he attached a seemingly unrelated statement: “Former Pakistan Army Director General Arshad Rafiq was willing to help make [Congress leader] Ahmed Patel the chief minister.”
Political mudslinging is routine in democratic elections, and its pitch invariably rises as voting day draws near. But I can think of no parallel in history to this relentless public demonisation of a single individual who holds no political office and has been disavowed by his own political party. It tells us two things about Modi: that he is seriously rattled by the feedback the BJP has been getting from Gujarat; and that he will stop at nothing to secure victory in Gujarat.
Here is a list of falsehoods that Modi has been relentlessly propagating.
First, as almost everyone who attended the dinner (including this writer) has emphasised, there was nothing secret about the meeting. The invitations were not sent on WhatsApp, Express VPN, Viber or any other encrypted messaging system, but on ordinary Gmail. The first invitations were sent out almost a month earlier and were followed up by Aiyar’s office. This was followed by phone calls from either Aiyar or his secretary to determine if one was coming. It is difficult to imagine that none of these calls are monitored.
The government was fully aware of the meeting because two of the guests, Manmohan Singh and Hamid Ansari, have ‘Z’ category protection from the Special Protection Group (SPG). The SPG not only inspect the premises and cordon off access points if they feel it is necessary, but have to be given a full list of the guests for pre-vetting. Modi has asked why Aiyar did not “inform” (i.e. get permission from) the Ministry of External Affairs when he was entertaining the Pakistan high commissioner and foreign minister (he conveniently forgot the word ‘former’). The answer is that since Aiyar is neither a minister nor a government official, no such prior information is required nor expected.
Third, there was no speculation about Delhi’s hottest topic – the Gujarat elections. The polls were not mentioned at all at the meeting. Even the word Gujarat was not uttered during the discussions either before or after dinner.
Fourth, Ahmed Patel’s name never came up at any point during the meeting. Modi’s repeated assertion that the Congress party is taking help from Pakistan’s intelligence to oust the BJP in Gujarat and intends to make “their man” the chief minister is based on a single Facebook post by someone calling himself Sardar Arshad Rafiq. The post has been shunned by every news channel in India except the notoriously pro-Modi NewsX, and is almost certainly manufactured by the same BJP troll factory that dubbed ‘Pakistan zindabad‘ onto a video of the JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar’s February 9, 2016 speech on campus to facilitate his arrest and incarceration in Tihar Jail two days later.
Also read: Mani Shankar Aiyar Did Not Hold ‘Secret’ Meetings With Pakistan Officials, but Advani Did
How easy it is to do this was demonstrated on December 4 when, hours after Modi reminded listeners at a rally in Gujarat that Aurangzeb too had come to the throne because he inherited it, a fake video began to circulate on YouTube, showing Rahul Gandhi signing his nomination papers at the party office in front of a portrait of Aurangzeb. The video had been morphed from the real footage which showed a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi. Modi, of course, twisted history completely out of shape, for Aurangzeb came to the throne through war and fratricide.
So if the invitees did not talk about Gujarat or Ahmed Patel, what did we talk about? The short answer is the quest for peace. The bond that united everyone in the room was a firm belief that neither India nor Pakistan could ever achieve their full potential without burying the hatchet. And this could not be done without burying the past. Contrary to what Modi wants people to believe, the gathering was not one of doves. On the contrary, the majority of the former foreign secretaries and high commissioners to Pakistan present that evening were sceptical of the possibility of restoring peace in the near future.
The discussion centred on the obstacles that needed to be removed first in both countries. These included not only the intensifying militancy in Kashmir, but also the role of the Pakistani army in nurturing terrorism and of the ISI in Kashmir. Several of us asked what the point was in seeking a diplomatic solution, when the Pakistan army so obviously had the final say on relations with India. Some suggested that it might be better to involve the armies of both countries in the talks, but this did not gain much traction.
Former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri took pains to dispel this pessimism. He reaffirmed, not for the first time, that there was indeed a four-point agreement between our countries signed by Manmohan Singh and former Pakistan President Parvez Musharraf; and that despite everything that had happened since 2007, this remained the only viable framework for peace. He asserted, as he had in his book Neither Hawk nor Dove, that Musharraf had constantly kept four top army commanders, including former army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and the ISI chief in the loop.
He was emphatic that this was the only way forward and that the Pakistan army was not as rabidly Islamist as the Indian media often portrayed it to be. He pointed out that by the time an officer got to be a general, he had spent several years obtaining a degree at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST), where there were students from 30 countries, and had attended several courses at military academies abroad. Thus no matter where he began, his entire life was spent broadening his perspectives.
However, Kasuri expressed great anxiety over the worsening situation in Kashmir. “No government in Pakistan will be able to take a step forward towards a settlement if the situation in Kashmir continues to worsen.”
Why is Modi going to such extreme lengths to rouse Islamophobia in Gujarat? The only possible explanation is that some difference in the response of his audiences during his recent spate of rallies has made him sense the possibility of defeat in Gujarat. Islamophobia had enabled him to snatch a victory after the Gujarat riots in 2002. He believes that it will enable him to do so again.
At first sight this looks like exaggerated paranoia, for in the 2014 elections the BJP had secured a mammoth 60% of the vote in Gujarat, while the share of the Congress had plummeted to 33%. But a closer look shows that a large part of this resulted from the abstention of Congress voters from casting their vote. The voter turnout in Gujarat was the third lowest in the country, after Kashmir and Bihar.
This time, the turnout in the first phase, although still lower than in 2012, has shown a substantial recovery, especially in the traditionally Congress Saurashtra region. Reports from Surat suggest that a substantial protest vote has developed there as well. So Modi’s apprehension may be well-grounded. That would explain his willingness to play with fire and stoke Islamophobia once more.
Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and author of several books.