New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise ‘stopover’ in Lahore is widely being seen as a diplomatic coup and illustrative of how he is re-writing the rules of his Pakistan policy. But the Prime Minister was not the only Indian in Lahore on Christmas. The presence of steel baron Sajjan Jindal in Lahore on the exact same day has raised eyebrows. His role as an informal conduit between the two Prime Ministers over the past year was first scooped and reported by NDTV’s Barkha Dutt in her book This Unquiet Land.
With Mr Jindal surfacing in Lahore on the same day as the Prime Minister – he says he was there to attend Mr Sharif’s grand daughter’s wedding and wish him for his birthday – the opposition Congress has reacted to the NDTV story, with its leader Anand Sharma claiming that the government must answer whether “private business interests are being put ahead of national interest.” The government has denied that Mr Jindal has any role in the back channel talks between the two countries.
Sharif’s family has long been in the steel production business as well, with his son running a group ironically called “Ittefaq” (coincidence). In this extract from This Unquiet Land Barkha Dutt gives you the inside story of Sajjan Jindal’s role, how he came to enjoy the confidence of both Prime Ministers and how he set up a covert and long meeting between Mr Modi and Nawaz Sharif in Nepal during the SAARC summit of 2014, when the media wrongly believed the two leaders were frostily ignoring each other.
These are exclusive extracts from the book:
As prime minister, Narendra’s Modi’s Pakistan policy soon reflected the essential contradiction he was trapped by. He wanted, like every prime minister before him, to be the man who would deliver lasting peace to South Asia, but at the same time, for his core constituency, he could not veer too far from the machismo of the man who boasted of a ’56- inch chest’. In other words he was attempting to think out of the box but also felt compelled to appear tougher with Pakistan than his predecessors. The result was confusion. After Sharif and Modi’s first meeting in Delhi they agreed to resume the stalled dialogue between the foreign secretaries of both countries. Then, the Pakistan high commissioner met with Kashmiri separatists ahead of those talks, as they had been doing for years, including in Vajpayee’s time. The Modi government protested and scrapped the talks. His hardline supporters hailed the decision as evidence that Modi was not going to be ‘soft’ like Vajpayee. Around the same time guns erupted at the LoC, testing the sustainability of a decade-old ceasefire agreement. BJP spokespersons were quick to go on TV and talk about how under the Modi government the army had a free hand to respond with the might it considered appropriate. ‘Our forces will make the cost of [Pakistan’s] adventurism unaffordable,’ warned Arun Jaitley.
But unknown to the media and certainly the public at large – and in yet more proof that basically there was nothing doctrinaire about Modi’s ideological formulations-both he and Sharif had found someone to keep them connected even when things got difficult. When the two leaders first met one on one in Delhi they discussed whether they wanted to repeat the back-channel model the previous governments had followed of deploying veteran diplomats in the role of special envoys. The model had permitted the conducting of discreet dialogue, usually in a neutral territory like Dubai, free from the pressure of political and public opinion. But those in the know say both Modi and Sharif decided to keep the reins of the relationship in their own hands instead, leaving them to decide when to pull back and when to let go. However, they agreed that it could be useful to talk informally through a mutual acquaintance they both felt comfortable with.
The unexpected conduit was the steel magnate with movie-star looks – Sajjan Jindal – brother of former Congress legislator Naveen Jindal. When Sharif was in Delhi, Jindal hosted a tea party for the Pakistani premier right after his meeting with Modi. It attracted little attention in the Indian media but in Pakistan, Sharif drew flak for finding time for Jindal and not for Kashmiri separatists (Sharif was the first Pakistani leader to visit India and not meet with the Hurriyat Conference or mention Kashmir in his public statements).
It was no secret that Indian steelmakers, both state and private players, were looking to foster friendly relations with Pakistan; they needed this to happen so they could ferry iron ore from Afghanistan by road across Pakistan from where it would be shipped to ports in western and southern India. When Sharif was in Delhi for Modi’s swearing-in he invited me to Delhi’s Taj Mansingh Hotel to have a cup of tea with him. In the lobby, I bumped into Jindal escorting Sharif ‘s son Hussain for lunch. I was struck by how friendly they seemed but assumed it was something to do with Jindal’s business interests. However, Jindal’s relationship with Sharif appeared to have gone beyond that of a businessman seeking to build a relationship with a head of state to further his business interests; they appeared to have become confidants.
Jindal kept the confidence of both prime ministers, never revealing the occasional unofficial role he had been entrusted with. Unlike special envoys in the past, his role was obviously not one that involved negotiating tricky matters of geopolitics. He was more like a covert bridge that connected them if either wanted to reach out to the other side sans protocol or publicity. Because Jindal’s part in the Indo-Pak drama was strictly off the record, it came with plausible deniability. When I was first told about the arrangement by a principal protagonist in the know, I considered reporting it for the news but decided against it, as I knew not one of the key players would go on record except to repudiate it.
But enough people in diplomatic and business circles in both countries knew about Jindal’s mediatory role. Except the media – which had been badly thrown off the scent by the seemingly frosty dynamics between Modi and Sharif when they met in Kathmandu in November 2014 for the annual conference of South Asian nations. Television anchors were airing the usual speculations about whether the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers would meet. Everyone was looking out for ‘the handshake’. There were precedents to this sort of conjecturing, especially where SAARC summits were concerned. In January 2002, Pervez Musharraf took India by surprise by striding across the room and clasping Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s hand in a firm grip. Taken aback for a second, Vajpayee then rose from his seat to reciprocate the gesture amid loud cheers from fellow delegates. This was just a few weeks after the attack on India’s Parliament. Then there was the ‘Thimphu Thaw’ where Manmohan Singh and his counterpart Yousaf Gilani came together and posed for cameras their hands interlinked in a show of warmth. This time around, there didn’t seem to be much chance of such amity.
The television channels were broadcasting footage on a loop that appeared to have caught a grim looking Modi studiously examining a newspaper whilst an equally impassive Sharif walked past him to make his address. There was no eye contact between the two men; they seemed to be ignoring each other altogether. It was evidence, journalists proclaimed, of the frostiness in ties between the two countries. The more ‘patriotic’ channels termed it a grand snub. At the close of the two-day conference, when Sharif and Modi finally shook hands and smiled for the cameras, flanked by other heads of state, the media was excitable and ready to draw conclusions. ‘Finally!’ said one headline, ‘Summit salvaged by handshake’ said another, once again suggesting that the two countries had just about come back from the brink of a total collapse in communication.
But as the op-eds were being written and the limitations of ‘the handshake’ were being debated to death on prime time television, a ‘secret’ meeting between Modi and Sharif had gone entirely undetected. Bombastic commentators, including those of the BJP, were decreeing the Nepal trip to be yet more proof of a tough new Pakistan policy. Even at the leaders-only retreat at the resort in Dhulikhel, an opportunity to talk more casually, the interaction between the two had been described as strictly an ‘exchange of pleasantries’. The public image of enforced politeness and actual friction between the two was authentic only to the extent that a structured encounter was never part of the plan. However, on reaching Kathmandu, the prime minister had called Sajjan Jindal and asked him to hop on to the earliest flight to Nepal. Jindal was asked to discreetly reach out to his ‘friend’ across the border. Subsequently, the two prime ministers were able to meet quietly in the privacy of Jindal’s hotel room in Nepal, where they are said to have spent an hour together. Elections in the sensitive state of Jammu and Kashmir were just a month away and Modi explained that while he was keen to find ways to reopen some formal channels, circumstances did not permit him to do so immediately. Sharif, in turn, told him about the constrictions imposed on him by the security establishment in Pakistan-his negotiating power with the army had been gradually whittled away. Both agreed they needed some more time and greater political space to move forward publicly. This under-the-radar encounter paved the way for Modi to openly reach out to Nawaz Sharif two months later through a phone call that was positioned as an innocuous good-luck call for the World Cup, but could be traced back to that moment in Nepal when both sides set the ball rolling.
I was told this story of Jindal’s role as an intermediary at a dinner where many big names from the business community were present. I was asked, more than once, how the media had missed it altogether. The telling part of the story to me was the contrast with the memory of that night in New York when Modi’s fierce outburst at an election rally in Delhi had drawn me into its vortex and made its impact felt on the first and last meeting Manmohan Singh ever had with Nawaz Sharif. A pragmatist had clearly replaced the polemicist.