By Jyoti Malhotra
Nawaz Sharif will fly back from London to Islamabad Friday to play another round of dice, a game as old and familiar as the Mahabharata, so that he can survive long enough to pass on his political legacy to his daughter and fellow accused, Maryam.
But Nawaz’s journey home is significant for another reason. It brings to an end a significant chapter in India-Pakistan relations, in which none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi and national security adviser AjitDoval have played starring roles.
So as Nawaz Sharif offers up his hands to be cuffed upon arrival at Islamabad airport, the India-Pakistan story, played over the back-channel between Doval and his former counterpart, Nasser Janjua, can finally be told.
Again and again, despite the attacks in Pathankot and Uri and even the surgical strikes in 2016, as well as the KulbhushanJadhav spy episode, the two security establishments in Delhi and Rawalpindi maintained contact.
But at public rallies, repeatedly over 2016, Modi spat fire and brimstone against Pakistan, accusing it of betrayal and treachery after his handshake in Lahore with Nawaz Sharif in December 2015.
Modi was right. The fact that the PM ‘dropped in’ to greet Nawaz on his birthday on 25 December 2015 and then travelled on a Pakistani Air Force (PAF) chopper for a short hop to Raiwind on the outskirts of Lahore, where Nawaz’s grand-daughter was getting married on the family estate, was carefully choreographed between the two countries.
There was nothing last-minute about Modi’s trip to Lahore, as told by the foreign office at the time. The fact is that the PM and Doval put themselves in the hands of the Pakistani military establishment when they sat in that PAF helicopter.
Modi was demonstrating trust. He wanted to show faith in Nawaz Sharif. He wanted a deal with Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the Pakistan military and the ISI.
As the prime minister of the largest country in south Asia, Modi wanted the world to see that he was the true inheritor of the Vajpayee legacy promoting connectivity and friendship even with the so-called enemy, Pakistan.
When the Pathankot attacks took place within a week of Modi’s trip to Pakistan, Doval decided that the Lahore spirit must remain. So when a Pakistani team came to ‘inspect’ the Pathankot army camp where the attacks took place, Doval took the unprecedented step of allowing an ISI intelligence man to be part of the team.
The Pathankot attacks were followed by the attack in Uri, which in turn were followed by the surgical strikes across the Line of Control. Modi was the picture of both fire and fury as he repeatedly accused Pakistan in public rallies of being an untrustworthy neighbour.
“Eenthkajawabpathar se” became the leitmotif of Modi’s responses.
And yet, when Nawaz Sharif went to Davos in January 2017, a mere three months after the surgical strikes, he had an extraordinary visitor: Sajjan Jindal, a Kolkata businessman, who owns JSW Steel.
Jindal, an old friend of Nawaz Sharif, allegedly through one of Sharif’s sons Hamza, was being used to probe the Pakistani prime minister’s reliability in picking up the threads with India.
Clearly, Modi hadn’t given up hope to make peace with Pakistan. There was the desire for legacy and international recognition, of course, but Modi, the sharp and astute political leader, recognised that he actually had a chance to turn around the animosity of the decades.
Doval played another card this time. He reached out to VarinderBabbar, a Punjabi businessman based in Italy and said to be a friend of the Nawaz Sharif family, to reach out to the Pakistani prime minister.
So Babbar and Jindal took a plane and landed in Pakistan end-April 2017. From there they went to Murree, a hill-station within kissing distance of Islamabad, where the Pakistan PM had gone for some rest and recreation.
With so many peace overtures underway, the Pakistani military establishment probably realised they couldn’t allow this to go on any further. Nawaz Sharif had to be shown who the master of Pakistan was.
So they leaked the Jindal-Babbar visit to the Pakistani media.
The Pakistani press was suitably apoplectic. Who were Jindal and Babbar and how were they allowed to go to Murree without a Murree visa, they asked? (In India-Pakistan visa matters, visas are given for cities, not just countries.)
One by one, Doval’s overtures were being spurned. By now the KulbhushanJadhav matter was hotting up in the International Court of Justice in Geneva, and India pulled out all its heavy hitters – including senior advocate Harish Salve – to seek consular access for Jadhav, locked up in a military jail in Pakistan.
A couple of months later, in July, Nawaz Sharif was in hot water himself. The Supreme Court declared that he was not ‘sadiq’ or ‘ameen’ (honest and truthful) because he had not fully declared his income, and disqualified him not only from his prime ministership but forbade him from participating in politics for the rest of his life. (It was another matter that Sharif had not received that income in his bank accounts.)
Talk about using a rocket-launcher to kill a mosquito.
Certainly, the Pakistani military establishment was exercising its discretion. Nawaz Sharif was doing too much damage to Pakistan’s controlled democracy. He actually believed there was such a thing as civilian supremacy!
The irony was that the ‘sadiq’ and ‘ameen’ phrases had been a Zia-era amendment to the Constitution. It had been none other than Zia-ulHaq who pulled out Nawaz Sharif from the mothballs of nondescription in the 1980s and turned him not only into a worthy opponent of Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), but also a rich and influential businessman.
Here in Delhi, Doval was certainly not about to give up. Contacts with Nawaz’s successor ShahidKhaqanAbbasi remained. Janjua, the NSA, kept in touch. Both men met in Bangkok in December 2017.
With Nawaz Sharif now readying to go to jail for ten years and his political legatee, Maryam, for two years, Pakistan enters an interesting phase. Nawaz will pitch for the sympathy vote, certainly. He will try and set up a people vs army campaign for the remaining few days of the campaign before the 25 July polls.
It may all be too late with the Army pitching for its favourite Imran Khan, or even Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother, Shahbaz. For the moment at least, Nawaz Sharif is history.
For Delhi, watching keenly, all options are still open. The Modi government, in its last year, may still roll the dice one last time before it goes to polls. The occasion for that may be the SAARC Summit that is expected to be held in Islamabad before the end of 2018.
Maybe not, though. Too much is up in the air, including the instability in Kashmir and the lynching of Muslims elsewhere in the country.
At any rate, it must be said that the Mahabharata game of ‘chaupar’ certainly has enthusiastic players even to this day – both in India and in Pakistan.