Pakistan is agog with the visit of Indian industrialist Sajjan Jindal earlier this week to Islamabad and Murree to meet Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Pakistani lawmakers also submitting an adjournment motion in the National Assembly, demanding the government come clean on the matter.
Interestingly, Delhi has remained totally mum. All speculation has been met with persistent stonewalling. Official spokesperson Gopal Baglay has only said “he has no idea” what the story is about. It’s enough to make you think that a quid pro quo is actually on the cards.
Is a Trade-Off on the Cards?
The question is, what is this trade-off all about? The most common speculation is that Delhi and Rawalpindi, where the headquarters of the Pakistan army and ISI are located, could be engaged in a possible swap – Kulbhushan Jadhav, the Indian kidnapped by Pakistani intelligence in Iran, in exchange for retired Pakistani Lt Col Zahir, who disappeared from Lumbini a few days ago.
This is the stuff of spy novels which sometimes transfixes cold reality. In truth, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval is an old spymaster, a former chief of India’s intelligence agency, the R&AW. One particular bit of unsourced comment is that the retired Pakistani colonel was a part of the team that kidnapped Jadhav from Iran.
An eye for an eye. That seems to be the motto of the Indian establishment these days. In this particular case, it may not be such a bad idea after all.
If the Pakistani military wants to hang Jadhav, it is clear the Indians must have the leverage to keep him alive. What better leverage than a former Pakistani intelligence official in your custody?
Moreover, who better to send such a message to the prime minister of Pakistan than a self-avowed friend of Nawaz Sharif ?
Nothing Beyond Old Camaraderie?
Let me reiterate that all of the above remains on the level of hearsay and confounded rumour. Perhaps the only thing that can be fully confirmed is that Jindal met Nawaz Sharif – a matter that Maryam, Nawaz Sharif’s daughter has herself confirmed.
That he went to the prime minister’s house in Islamabad and also to Murree, a hill station built by the British, close to Islamabad, to meet the Pakistan PM.
Mr. Jindal is an old friend of the Prime Minister. Nothing 'secret' about the meeting & should not be blown out of proportion. Thank you.— Maryam Nawaz Sharif (@MaryamNSharif) April 27, 2017
The fact is, this isn’t the first time this year that Jindal has met Nawaz Sharif. In January, the Indian steel magnate met the Pakistani prime minister and spent time with him in Davos, leading to the speculation that a potential conversation between India and Pakistan is on the cards.
Jindal was in Lahore in December 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi diverted his plane from Kabul to Lahore to attend Nawaz Sharif’s grand daughter’s wedding. When the Pakistani PM came to Delhi to attend Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in 2014, Jindal threw a tea party for the Pakistani prime minister.
Leaking the Jindal Story to the Press
Considering that India-Pakistan relations are at a particular nadir, how did the Jindal story get leaked to the press? Who’s interest was it in to do so?
There can be only one answer to that question and that is the Pakistani establishment – read, the Army and the ISI, who will not allow Nawaz Sharif to take charge and improve relations with India.
But by “leaking” the story and having it picked up by the press, which in turn was picked up by Opposition parties like Imran Khan’s PTI as well as the Pakistan People’s Party, who demanded an adjournment motion to discuss the matter – clearly, the attempt was to put an already embattled Nawaz Sharif on the mat.
In another year, Nawaz Sharif will face elections again. It has been abundantly clear in the past four years that the Pakistan PM has staked his reputation again and again to make peace with India.
In 1999, when he tried it for the first time, the Army retaliated by attacking India at Kargil. In December 2015, the Modi visit to Raiwind for the wedding was followed by the Pathankot attack. And in 2017, Sajjan Jindal meeting Nawaz in Davos as well as in Pakistan last week was leaked to the press.
Each time, the Pakistan army has pulled the leash on Nawaz Sharif’s enthusiasm, as if to warn him that enough was enough on the India front.
Clearly, the bilateral relationship is in a deep hole if an Indian and a Pakistani have to give reasons why they want to meet each other.
Modi Seeking Way Forward
Unlike 1999, when then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee confidante, RK Mishra, used to meet Nawaz Sharif in the middle of the Kargil operation to try and sort out how both sides could honourably withdraw, the Sajjan Jindal manoeuvre seems to be more complex.
If it is true, then it shows that Prime Minister Modi is looking for an honourable way out – not only from the Kulbhushan Jadhav mess, but also as a way forward.
After all, Pakistan will hold the SAARC summit later this year, after its postponement last year when India and several other SAARC nations didn’t go to Islamabad. But it seems unlikely that Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and Bhutan will acquiesce to India’s request to boycott SAARC for the second consecutive year. If they do turn down India’s request, then Delhi will be isolated in a region it wants so desperately to lead.
Staying Relevant in South Asia
For several south Asian nations, China is beginning to increasingly look like an alternative to India. Delhi knows this. Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal are scheduled to participate at China’s global economy summit, called the One Belt One Road summit, in mid-May. Could India – and Prime Minister Modi – be losing South Asia so quickly?
Perhaps Kulbhushan Jadhav holds the key to unlocking this complex dilemma. The tragedy is that all of this could have been avoided – just like Kashmir – if the leadership in Delhi only knew what to look for. Unfortunately, the price to be paid to reach the same plateau is now much higher.
(The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi and writes on the overlap between domestic politics and foreign affairs. She can be reached @jomalhotra. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)