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Diplomacy

In Book, Satinder Lambah Reveals Plan to Meet Nawaz Sharif as Modi’s Envoy in April 2017

The plan was stymied even before the veteran diplomat left Delhi because of industrialist Sajjan Jindal’s trip to Islamabad.

New Delhi: Satinder Lambah, a veteran of back-channel talks, had been asked by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to travel as his personal envoy to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in April 2017, but the plan was stymied even before he left Delhi by industrialist Sajjan Jindal’s trip, the diplomat reveals in his memoir.

Released earlier this month, Lambah’s posthumously published book, In Pursuit of Peace: India-Pakistan Relations Under Six Prime Ministers chronicles his insider role in managing the India-Pakistan relationship and the back-channel talks that nearly led to an agreement over Kashmir. Lambah passed away last year at the age of 81.

While his book does not cover the period after 2014, Lambah said that he had met with PM Modi on the latter’s request on a couple of occasions. It began with a meeting before the swearing-in ceremony when all SAARC leaders, including Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif, travelled to India. He later met with Modi again, when he briefed the prime minister on the back-channel talks.

Lambah claimed there had been an “intent” to restart the back-channel process. “The file on the subject had been reviewed. I was even told that no major change was required.”

The veteran Indian Foreign Service officer wrote that he was “asked” to meet with a “distinguished diplomat” who was being considered a special envoy by PM Modi. But, that path did not go further. “However, when I checked with the PMO, I was told that there had been a change in thought and I would be informed regarding the briefing.”

But, there was a more concrete proposal for him to act as a messenger, which nearly happened.

In an excerpt published by The Wire, Lambah wrote about a previously unreported incident in which the PMO instructed him to travel to Pakistan and meet with PM Nawaz Sharif on behalf of Modi.

“On 20 April 2017, a senior official of the PMO came to see me at my house. He said the prime minister wanted me to visit Pakistan to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. I reiterated that such meetings are more valuable if the envoy has the public confidence of the prime minister. However, on the 22nd, I was told I would be given details of the points to be discussed and was asked to give my travel documents to enable me to travel to Pakistan.”

Prime Minister Modi’s plan to send Lambah to Pakistan took place after a period of intense strain.

While Sharif’s visit to Delhi and Modi’s sudden stop in Lahore had fostered optimism, those hopes were eventually shattered by the terror attacks on the Pathankot air force base in January 2016 and the Uri army camp in September 2016. In retaliation, the Indian army claimed to have carried out “surgical strikes” against terror camps across the Line of Control.

Lambah wrote that on April 22, 2017, along with the senior PMO official, he met with lawyer Fali Nariman “to refresh some points”.

However, the next day, he came across a news report that an Indian industrialist had gone to meet PM Nawaz Sharif “in his personal plane” as an “emissary”.

“I rang the official, who appeared surprised at this development. I told him that under the circumstances, it would not be proper for two people to represent the prime minister for the same purpose. Clearly, the emissary had not coordinated his visit to Pakistan with the PMO. This was the last conversation I had on this subject,” he wrote.

Lambah was referring to the visit of Industrialist Sajjan Jindal, whose meeting with Nawaz Sharif at Murree, was leaked and created a political furore in Pakistan. The grapevine during that period had speculated that the leak was done by security agencies, worried that Sharif was taking a more soft and independent approach towards India.

The media reports had speculated that Jindal’s visit was related to the Indian national and former naval officer, Kulbhushan Jadhav, who had been sentenced to death by a Pakistan military court on April 10, 2017.

Lambah did not mention the nature of the message that he was to discuss with PM Sharif. However, he mentions Nariman in the book in a separate instance, when the latter was consulted for his legal opinion on whether the draft agreement was in line with the Indian constitution.