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01/02/2024
PILLARS OF UNWISDOM
on IHC AJAY BISARIA'S BOOK


Memoirs of retired Indian and Pakistani diplomats contain accounts of their postings to Islamabad and New Delhi, spent in professional pugilism and then recollected in tranquility.

Former Indian High Commissioner HC Ajay Bisaria’s book Anger Management: The troubled diplomatic relationship between India and Pakistan (2024) belongs to that genre. Its adversarial counterpart is former Pakistan HC Abdul Basit’s Hostility: A Diplomat’s Diary on Pakistan-India Relations (2021).

IHC Bisaria served in Islamabad for twenty months before being summarily ‘expelled’ in 2019 – the first among his twenty-four predecessors to suffer this indignity.

His book is the most comprehensive survey to date of the first seventy-six years in a conflict that could well score a century. It is structured to cover seven decades and some years, from 1947 into 2023. It could carry the subtitle: Seven Pillars of Unwisdom.

According to him, three ideas ‘of identity, territory, and security have populated scholarship on the subcontinent’. They recur repeatedly in his narrative. He tells us that ‘a lesson all Indian envoys to Pakistan learn at some point or the other: Pakistan policy in India is driven personally by India’s prime minister’.

Since Independence, India has drawn its elected prime ministers from the same democratic pool, installed by popular vote. The authority of the PM is unequivocal, except in the instance of the paloo-tied control exercised by Smt. Sonia Gandhi during PM Manmohan Singh’s tenure. In contrast, leadership in Pakistan has passed from Governors General, to nominated or self-appointed presidencies, to all too often selected prime ministers.

Many of them have articulated their views on foreign policy. None has done so as poetically as the late PM A. B. Vajpayee, who wrote: ‘The tools of diplomacy are words, eyes, and signs;/Words, eyes, and signs; plus forks and knives;/First you shake hands,/Then wring them in repentance’.

Bisaria notes that personal chemistry between sub-continental leaders has often raised the hopes of their peoples: ‘Duos of leaders had held great promise of breakthroughs in their times: Zia and Rajiv, Benazir and Rajiv, Sharif and Gujral, Sharif and Vajpayee, even Sharif and Modi, seemed to signal new phases of constructive engagement’.

He recalls: ‘In the 1960s, Rajeshwar Dayal managed to persuade Nehru to give Ayub Khan a chance, despite Nehru’s instinctive suspicion of the dictator. Natwar Singh became an advocate for Zia in the 1980s despite Mrs. Gandhi’s aversion to him. Pakistan’s envoy Jehangir Qazi, through his quiet diplomacy with Advani, managed to get the Agra Summit of 2001 in place giving Musharraf a chance to make his case’.

He singles out Vajpayee for his ‘sincerity and balanced approach’ towards Pakistan. Amongst Pakistani leaders, he thinks ‘Zia was perhaps the most consummate diplomat for Pakistan who tried to sweet-talk India while running a nuclear programme and a jihad’ in India’s Punjab.

Bisaria remembers PM Manmohan Singh’s remarks in 2006 that ‘borders cannot be redrawn, but we can work towards making them irrelevant [,] just lines on a map’.  Singh’s sponsorship of the Satish Lambah / Tariq Aziz plan came as close to a working formula for Indo-Pak relations as the two nations will ever reach. On taking over, PM Modi read it and shelved it. In former IHC Shivshankar Menon’s words, ‘the two countries fell into a ‘repetitive pattern or dance’ of engagement and disruption’.

It is to IHC Bisaria’s credit that, despite being ‘more of a Europe and Russia hand’, he accepted the Islamabad assignment with courage. He describes his life there as ‘never lonely’. ‘Followed everywhere, watched closely, photographed on cell phones by swarms of men in shalwar–kameez, Indian diplomats become either peaceniks or hawks [:] seldom left in the middle’.

In conclusion, Bisaria offers his successor nine unequal pillars of wisdom: cross border security, the coincidence of leadership,  safe diplomacy, the role of global forces and multilateral institutions, the aspirations of the people, quarantining territorial disagreements, accepting Pakistan’s volatile structure of governance, minority issues and, leastly, economic aspects of the relationship.

Peering into August 2047, when India and Pakistan will celebrate a centenary of independence from each other, Bisaria discerns three scenarios: ‘Business as usual; conditional optimism; and conditional pessimism’.

Those who recall the struggles over Northern Ireland (1960-1990) may remember the response of the then British prime minister John Major when he was asked what his solution for the Irish question was: ‘We can do one of three things. We can go backwards, or stay where we are. Neither is a policy. Or we can go forward’.

By the end of February, there should be a new government (conceivably led by Nawaz Sharif) installed in Islamabad. By June 2024, predictably, Narendra Modi will have returned to serve a third term. In which direction will they take us: backwards, remain mired in history, or forwards? 

 .

F. S. AIJAZUDDIN

 

[DAWN, 1 FEB. 2024, titled Years of Unwisdom]

 

 
01 February 2024
 
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