“He (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) has not done so (stopover in Lahore) to promote India’s national interest. It is now in public domain that he used vested private business interests for a secret meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Kathmandu earlier and the same channel he has used for the meeting in Lahore. The industrialist concerned, who has a business partnership with the ruling establishment in Pakistan, was there (in Lahore) for the last two days. This has come out in the open. So how can the government claim this was spontaneous?”
That was the official reaction of the Congress party, through spokesperson Anand Sharma, on the Prime Minister’s Lahore pitstop. Steel tycoon Sajjan Jindal, is the industrialist who, Sharma claimed, had arranged the Lahore meeting between Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief on 25 December. The proof that Jindal mid-wifed the meeting was that he was in Lahore at the same time as Modi.
Barely an hour after Modi announced his intended Lahore touchdown, Jindal himself helpfully tweeted to disclose his location.
Sharma also alleged that Modi and Sharif had a secret tête-à-tête at the Saarc meeting in Nepal, behind the veneer of a frosty public handshake. Even this meeting, Sharma suggested, was arranged by Jindal. The proof: According to an expose by a senior journalist in her book, Jindal, too, was in Kathmandu at that time.
Lies, half-truths and self-deception are integral to politics. The story that Sajjan Jindal made the Lahore meeting possible is one such lie that has assumed a ring of truth by its mere repetition. The Congress has latched on to this lie and disseminated it furiously to try to take the sheen off Modi’s initiative to drop in at Lahore as a part of his unconventional diplomacy. Pithy headlines such as ‘ties of steel’ only cemented the far-from-the-reality image of Jindal as the man who can make two prime ministers of the subcontinent dance to his tunes.
Now, let us look at the recorded facts at the Prime Minister’s office (PMO) and residence about Jindal’s much-touted Modi connection. Jindal met the Prime Minister only once and that too as a part of the 20-member delegation of businessmen at 7 RCR, the official residence of the PM. “That was a purely business discussion in which Pakistan was never mentioned,” said a source at the meeting.
Sajjan Jindal. ReutersSajjan Jindal.
Similarly the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has categorically denied any on-the-sly meeting between the two Kathmandu. Officials who accompanied Modi point out that both the leaders avoided each other till the last moment. “Modi suddenly walked up to Sharif to shake hands in front of the media in an impromptu move that came as a surprise to Indian delegates,” they point out. In spite of the vehement denial of a secret meeting at Saarc by both the MEA and the PMO, the Congress tactically used this lie to strengthen the perception about the PM holding diplomacy ransom to commercial interests of a certain industrial group.
Given the Congress’ own long experience in the government, the party leadership is acutely aware of the fact that it is beyond the capacity of an industrialist to influence a straitjacketed and orthodox foreign affairs bureaucracy of the South Block. The Congress itself was at the receiving end of such a calumny during the Manmohan Singh regime when an Indian hotelier in America, Sant Singh Chatwal, suddenly acquired eminence and became the toast of the Delhi’s cocktail circuit. Chatwal’s exaggerated shadow loomed large even on the Indo-US nuclear deal. In spite of Chatwal’s proximity to top leaders of the US establishment, his influence on the Indo-US relations was needlessly overrated by the media and the Opposition (the BJP then).
The Congress might just be returning the favour to the BJP for its Chatwal indiscretions, which is fair game in politics. But the party forgets one crucial difference between the two scenarios. Chatlwal was not only seen in the company of the high and the mighty of the land but was also conferred ‘Padam Bhushan’ — one of the top civilian awards — for unknown services rendered to the country.
In sharp contrast, the Jindals, far from carrying an image of a hangers-on of the Modi government, are at the receiving end. The enforcement agencies of the government have initiated various cases against the Jindals who are perceived to be closer to the Congress than the BJP. Sajjan’s nephew and industrialist Navin Jindal was a Congress MP from Kurukshetra in the previous Lok Sabha. Navin himself is taking heat from the CBI in the coal scam.
The question then arises how did the story of Sajjan Jindal influencing Indian diplomacy in relation to Pakistan get credence? Sources in the government say that it began soon after the swearing in of the Prime Minister in May 2014 which was attended by heads of the Saarc nations. After the oath-taking ceremony the Pakistan Prime minister Nawaz Sharif went to Sajjan Jindal’s residence for tea. This fuelled the speculation about Jindal’s possible role in persuading Sharif to visit India. That, of course, proves Jindal is friends with Sharif, but where’s the evidence that he has or had any heft with Modi?
Highly placed sources in the government dismiss suggestions of Sajjan’s role for any of the meetings. They point out that the decision to invite leaders of the Saarc nations for Modi’s inauguration was taken by Modi in consultation with President Pranab Mukherjee. “Since the President was the host of the oath-taking ceremony, he took the initiative to extend personal invites to all heads of the states in Saarc nations,” they point out. Forget about Sajjan Jindal, very few cabinet colleagues of Modi or foreign office diplomats were in the know before the decision was announced.
“Does the Prime Minister of India need any intermediary to talk to another head of the state,” they ask, terming the whole proposition as preposterous. “Let me assure you that if the government wants to do anything secretively, you can be sure nobody will never find out,” they said pointing to the Vajpayee government’s ability to carry out Pokhran-II much to the chagrin of top global spy agencies.
The Congress’ decision to persist with this lie on Modi’s Pakistan tour is guided by its short-term interests. Though the party is aware of the reality, it is holding on to the lie just to frame Modi’s policy initiatives in the political expedient binary of rich and poor. It probably thinks lies have more longevity than truth.
Sajjan Jindal would have laughed all the way back to India. His posts from the Marari beach in Kerala, where he holidayed soon after Lahore, suggest he is still laughing.
… As Published in First Post