'Modi and Sharif might prefer to leave a legacy of peace': Ajay Bisaria

Right now is not the right time to talk to Pakistan, says Bisaria

PTI12_25_2015_000218B Giving peace a chance: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore in December 2015 | PTI

Exclusive Interview/ Ajay Bisaria, former high commissioner to Pakistan

AJAY BISARIA HAD just 72 hours to pack his bags and leave Islamabad. The Indian high commissioner to Pakistan was expelled by the host country in 2019―the fallout of India repealing Article 370, ending the special status for Jammu and Kashmir. The only other Indian high commissioner who had to leave Pakistan in a hurry was Vijay K. Nambiar, after the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001. But Nambiar could even manage a round of golf before his departure. Bisaria did not have such luck. The difference, he writes, was that Nambiar was withdrawn by India, while he had his marching orders from the Pakistani government.

Imran’s phase was a wasted opportunity, because the army seemed to be going through a rethink about the India relationship.
Right now is not the right time to talk to Pakistan, because we don’t know whom to talk to till the elections are held.

Bisaria’s book, Anger Management: The Troubled Diplomatic Relationship between India and Pakistan, is well researched and is full of interesting anecdotes. He reveals how G. Parthasarathy, the then high commissioner, had to answer prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s questions on old Hindi hits which were being belted out by the Punjab Police band in Lahore during the famous bus yatra by prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999. There is also the advice by former diplomat Satinder Lambah to never discuss Kashmir in Pakistan after 6pm. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Bisaria speaks about the book, his experiences in Pakistan, Indian foreign policy and world politics. Excerpts:

Q/ Why the title Anger Management?

A/ It is a playful title. There is a serious undercurrent. There is a lot of anger, passion and hatred―from the time of partition, and its aftermath. [There is] anger about the four wars, about Kashmir, about territory, about Bangladesh, about Siachen. There is India’s anger about terrorism and Mumbai. The management is often in writings on Pakistan, on policy. People say it is about managing the relationship, which means there is no grand strategy to resolve this conundrum. What you really have is perhaps a way of tactical adjustments, so that it does not get worse, rather than a strategic reset, which says we can be like Germany and France. We do not talk of that model at all.

Q/ Can you describe your last few days in Pakistan?

A/ We did not anticipate this overreaction. We thought there will be a lot of anger, there will be a lot of rhetoric [over the abrogation of Article 370]. But it just seemed to run over. On August 7, 2019, we heard that they asked to close down the high commission. As I mentioned in the book, we were not sure that day whether they would say, ‘Let us break off diplomatic relations’, or ‘Shut down the mission and ask the Indians to leave’. Or they would simply downgrade the mission and throw out 50 per cent of our people. In the end, asking the high commissioner to leave was the least disruptive choice. The only question then was, how much time do I have? I had two chefs and a house, and my wife was not in town.

I had 72 hours, just about enough time to do some analysis and to pack up and leave. My whole exit was also something that had to be choreographed and planned because I did not want to end up being on the Wagah border, and a grandstanding happening about being allowed to leave or not. I just left quietly, taking a flight.

Q/ Do you feel that Imran Khan could have solved the problem if he did not overreact?

A/ Absolutely. Leadership matters―how leaders react, what they do, how they handle a sensitive issue, it matters. Imran Khan could have taken that view and not bang that door shut. Because at the same time, they were talking of geoeconomics and trying to find a modus vivendi with India. Imran’s phase was a wasted opportunity, because the army seemed to be going through a rethink about the India relationship. The army was telling us or was giving us the impression that Imran had run away with those talking points. He was taking them to such levels of public statements that it became very hard for anyone to roll back.

Q/ You also talk about a tipoff about an attack in Kashmir.

A/ It was from an ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) source about a possible Al Qaeda attack in Kashmir. This was related to Zakir Musa, a terrorist who had been killed. I mentioned this incident to illustrate the point that strange things have happened in this relationship. This is not for the first time that either of these (Indian and Pakistani) agencies would have informed each other [about]some bit of live intelligence of relevance. But also, with what happened at that point of time, we can only speculate that they did not want another Pulwama. They were trying to improve the atmospherics with India, particularly in the context of a possible meeting in Bishkek between Imran and Prime Minister Modi. I just use this episode to illustrate that not everything is one little narrative of complete hostility.

Q/ You talk about an incident where Manvendra Singh, former MP from Barmer, asked your help to transport the body of an old lady who had gone to visit her relatives in Pakistan and how you contacted the Pakistani civil society.

A/ What it represents is the latent goodwill in the relationship, which stems from these people-to-people connections, what we often call cultural intimacy. I also caution that we should not overstate the case, because we find public narratives and people-to-people relationship also often get poisoned by the official narrative, of extreme hatred. We should park it in our mind as an asset, something that can be deployed, because there is still a good deal of cultural intimacy even among people who don’t share the partition links.

Happier times: Ajay Bisaria with former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan in August 2018 | PTI Happier times: Ajay Bisaria with former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan in August 2018 | PTI

Q/ Do you think that India and Pakistan can be like France and Germany someday?

A/ If you look at very long term, there is certainly a nonzero probability of the relationship becoming like France and Germany. But there are many hurdles. It can become way better. Or, worse? We could just muddle along, as we have been doing. Leadership is important and diplomacy is important. We need to be very consciously understanding this issue and creatively dealing with it.

Q/ You suggest a model where India engages the Pakistan army.

A/ I would certainly advocate policy where we followed twin tracks of active defence―where we have a lower tolerance of terrorism―and deal with it kinetically, in the sub-conventional space. We have an answer for it and we make the costs so high that the Pakistan establishment abandons what is called the strategic culture of jihadism. But accompanied by that we need flexible, creative and calibrated engagement. For instance, right now is not the right time to talk to Pakistan, because we don’t know whom to talk to till the elections are held. Within that, it is important to triangulate anything that we talk with the civilians, with the army, through whatever means―direct or indirect. We have seen the precedent of Sharif, [going it] alone. He [was] with Vajpayee on the Lahore bus yatra, and had invited Prime Minister Modi. But the army was not on board. So he could not deliver, and get the other stakeholders on board. This is the reason why I look at 2024 with some cautious optimism. We could have a political configuration starring Sharif, who would be backed this time by the army. If both Prime Minister Modi and Sharif are in their legacy terms, they might prefer to leave a legacy of peace, than one of war.

Q/ How do you look at Pakistan elections? Sharif has a starring role, but do you think that the army has fixed everything else with Imran so that it can possibly look at Sharif winning with legitimacy?

A/ They are certainly moving in that direction. But it is not an easy task. They like to do election engineering, but they have to do industrial scale management. If Imran’s cadres are to be believed, there is a 70 per cent to 80 per cent wave in his favour. That makes it harder to manage those election results.

They do typically some pre-election engineering, like they will have a few parties suddenly folding in and supporting Sharif. But their worry at this point is that Sharif has not captured the imagination [of the voters] even in Punjab the way they would have expected. There is a certain conversation going on, on postponing the elections. The mood generally is to have them done. [The process] to manage those elections so that the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) and Imran are extinguished completely and [to launch] project Nawaz has begun.

Q/ What is it about Imran? How do you explain his popularity?

A/ Imran was too good to be true. He had charisma. Three successive army chiefs believed that they were wasting their time on Sharif and the Pakistan Peoples Party. [General] Bajwa believed in this project in the beginning very strongly. The problem is that Imran could not deliver on governance. On economic governance, he was quite a failure. Even on foreign policy, he created a big mess from their point of view, which made them want to step in. But most important, he pushed back on the army in its internal management of who would become the director-general of the ISI. All that added to the army saying that this was a mistake.

I recall when Imran was coming in, there were a lot of younger army officers apparently saying, ‘Be careful. He will, in a couple of years, develop a mind of his own, and he may want to take the country in a different direction.’ That was exactly what happened.

Q/ One of the factors that is going to affect the India-Pakistan relationship is geopolitics. The big power game has begun again. How do you see that panning out, especially with a belligerent China and the US?

A/ Major powers have always played a role. The current geopolitical challenge for Pakistan is happening against the backdrop of a severe economic crisis, accompanied by a security and political crisis. They are facing a global crisis with the US-China standoff, and [looking at] how to balance the two powers. They need both for economic sustenance. China can give direct loans and the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) investments. But the US is required for IMF loans. Since August 15, 2021 [and] the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, their geopolitical rents have dried up. [The rent for their] strategic location, which they used to earn through the Cold War, the Afghan war and the war on terror, has suddenly dried up. Pakistan is floundering. The central problem for them, apart from the Afghan crisis, is this need to balance the US and China.

Q/ Pakistan has always claimed strategic depth in Afghanistan. There is also the proxy war of the Khalistan in Canada.

A/ Afghanistan is certainly the bigger challenge, the biggest for Pakistan in a security sense. In the two years post August 2021, Pakistan’s central objectives were not met. The opposite happened. What did they expect with the Taliban? One, they recognise the Durand Line (Pakistan-Afghanistan) border and respect it. Second, they would control the TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan) and not let them attack Pakistan. And third, keep the Indians out. On all three fronts, the Taliban has done the opposite. India has the coordination mission. They are not really throwing India out. From our point of view, Pakistan’s whole relevance to Afghanistan has gone down.

The Khalistani separatism and Pakistan’s support is well known, right from the 1970s. They use a low cost option of going to the diaspora communities and trying to radicalise them. A lot of them are invited to Pakistan. This is something that Pakistan does and will continue to do. We are aware of it, we need to keep watching it very carefully. In Canada, it also plays into the internal politics, less than, say in the US, Australia, Germany or the UK.