The dinner organised by Mani Shankar Aiyar for his friend from Cambridge, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, was uneventful by all accounts. Former PM Manmohan Singh didn’t even speak and is said to have excused himself early.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Pakistan conspiracy charge against the Congress, his red flag on a get-together in Mani Shankar Aiyar’s house and other such insinuations, have sparked off a political controversy reminiscent of a different time.
But going by the cast of characters, it may be quite relevant even today except, the sides have changed.
This was in 1988 when India’s first Prime Minister from Gujarat, Morarji Desai, was conferred Pakistan’s highest civilian honour Nishaan-e-Pakistan. But it was accepted on his behalf only in 1990 when Subramanian Swamy, as commerce minister, travelled to Pakistan. So, what was the controversy?
Rajiv Gandhi was the PM when President Zia-ul-Haq took the call to honour Desai. The ruling Congress party strongly criticised the move. Then home minister Buta Singh led the charge, pointing to Pakistan’s role in sponsoring militancy in Punjab, a fact also recorded by former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, T.C.A. Raghavan, in his book – The People Next Door: The Curious History of India’s relations with Pakistan.
Desai’s brief couple of years as PM from 1977 to 1979 were among the more fruitful years in India-Pak relations when normalcy was restored after the hostilities of 1971. And shepherding this on a daily basis was Desai’s foreign minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then with the Jan Sangh.
Desai and Vajpayee were instrumental in reopening the Indian consulate in Karachi, they then selected and posted Mani Shankar Aiyar as the first Consul General. Zia, as Raghavan notes, described Desai a ‘statesman’, one with whom he was more comfortable than with Indira Gandhi.
But that wasn’t the real reason to confer the highest civilian award. Pakistan’s decision came a year after India had conferred the Bharat Ratna on Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, better known as the Frontier Gandhi. It’s said Zia wanted to match the contest with Rajiv Gandhi.
The issue turned into a heated debate with K.R. Malkani, one of the BJP’s founders, supporting Desai, who provided his own justification. “It’s the duty of the biggest country to keep good relations with all its neighbours. That’s the way I thought and that’s what I did,” is how Raghvan has quoted Desai, adding that “at the award ceremony almost three years later, Government of India was represented by Subramanian Swamy”.
If Swamy’s visit to Pakistan as commerce minister firmly put the lid on that controversy, former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri’s trips to India are having just the opposite effect. Sudheendra Kulkarni, once a famed BJP ideologue and strategist, was smeared with ink two years ago for releasing Kasuri’s book in Mumbai, which he still did with black ink on his face.
This time though, Kasuri was primarily here to attend a royal wedding but packed in a few more engagements including the dinner at Aiyar’s place. In many ways, it seemed like quite a ‘royal-elite’ affair, which along with Aiyar’s ‘neech’ comment, provided the perfect political contrast to Modi.
The wedding in this case was in the Rampur family. Noor Bano, the Begum of Rampur, is a longstanding member of the Congress and a former MP. Kasuri, it so happens, is related to the Rampur family through the Loharu royal lineage.
He is said to have married into the Loharu royal family that existed as a princely state in South Punjab. It’s one of the oldest Muslim royal families to have affiliations on both sides of the border.
Then, of course, Aiyar and Kasuri were together in Cambridge in 1961-63, before the former joined the Indian Foreign Service. Kasuri as foreign minister also came for the wedding of Aiyar’s daughter.
So, perhaps, a dinner of this sort, is always in order for an old friend. Except that it found new relevance after Aiyar’s dig at the PM, which was followed by an apology and suspension from the Congress.
The dinner, by all accounts, was generally uneventful with each invitee getting a few minutes to speak on India-Pak relations. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh didn’t even speak and is said to have excused himself early because he had a flight to catch to Rajkot the next morning.
Yet, the political die was cast between the elite who dine with Pakistan’s upper crust and the less affluent Indian nationalist. In a no holds barred election, Modi and the BJP were not going to let that pass, especially since that’s a divide they want to repeatedly emphasise.