Statesmen too, it would seem, fall in love at first sight. Not in the way regular couples do, but in a metaphorical sense. As when George W. Bush met Vladimir Putin for the first time in June 2001, he “looked the man in the eye, found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy… I was able to get a sense of his soul”.
Or when Margaret Thatcher met Mikhail Gorbachev and said: “I like Mr Gorbachev, we can do business together.” Contrary to popular assumption, this remark, which helped shape the free world’s view of Gorbachev, was not made after the then British prime minister met the architect of perestroika as the last general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to hold that office. Thatcher recalls in her memoirs, The Downing Street Years, that she said this about Gorbachev to journalists after their very first meeting in December 1984, when Konstantin Chernenko was still the unquestioned leader of the CPSU. Gorbachev had gone to Chequers, the prime minister’s country home, at her invitation on his first ever visit to a Western capitalist country as the head of a Soviet parliamentary delegation.
Thatcher’s instant chemistry with Gorbachev may have influenced her wishful thinking then, since “as he took his leave, I hoped that I had been talking to the next Soviet leader”. But it is also a tribute to her perspicacity — indeed, that of British diplomacy even today — that her observation that evening at Chequers came true in the byzantine world of the Kremlin barely three months later when Chernenko abruptly died.
Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart, the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, could have similarly hit it off very well at their meeting in New York last month. Circumstances had been tailor-made for such good chemistry but by all accounts their first meeting was a disappointing washout. It was a world away from Singh’s maiden encounter with Pervez Musharraf in September 2004.
The Singh-Musharraf meeting was full of hope notwithstanding the prime minister’s relative lack of experience in foreign affairs at that juncture and in spite of a deep-rooted Indian trust deficit in Musharraf as the architect of Kargil. Hope was in the air because those who worked on such meetings in the prime minister’s office in 2004 had a vision. They worked tirelessly not only to realize that vision but also to put the head of government’s imprint on their vision. There was a freshness about the PMO then which has since evaporated.
This columnist, who was in New York to report on that meeting, has vivid recollections of being told on the background before it started that every little detail had been worked out beforehand between J.N. Dixit and Tariq Aziz, the national security advisers respectively of India and Pakistan. To escape the prying eyes of not only journalists, but even spooks in their midst, Dixit and Aziz had met in Dubai several days earlier to finalize the minute-to-minute engagement between Singh and Musharraf.
After the summit in Roosevelt Hotel, the Pakistan International Airlines-owned watering hole in Manhattan in those days for influential Pakistanis visiting the Big Apple, one very senior adviser to the prime minister told this columnist how Singh sprang it on the rest of his delegation just before the Indian VVIP motorcade left their New York Palace Hotel that he and Musharraf would meet without any aides. Then external affairs minister, Natwar Singh, this adviser recounted with a twinkle in his eye, blurted out that “this cannot be allowed”.
In his typically calm manner, the prime minister responded: “Let me decide, Natwar, what can or cannot be allowed.” This anecdote is worth recalling in the context of last month’s Indo-Pakistan high level meeting in New York because Manmohan Singh, who was like a breath of fresh air in the political system nine autumns ago is a pale shadow today of what he was in 2004. After the way his party unceremoniously let him down following his Sharm-el-Sheikh dialogue with Pakistan’s prime minister, it is doubtful if Manmohan Singh would have been so authoritative or bold with another Natwar Singh if he had similarly tried to usurp charge of last month’s meeting.
Manmohan Singh, who is nowadays mocked by his critics for his silence, was eloquent with Musharraf by even the prime minister’s own standards of his persona. Aa ki in tarikion se surkhian paida karen/ Is zameen ki bastion se aasma paida karen. These were Manmohan Singh’s opening lines in his first conversation with Musharraf as prime minister. He supplemented that couplet at the New York meeting with another, equally pregnant with symbolism, reflecting what could have been possible with Pakistan in what posterity will judge as a lost decade. Kuch aise bhi manzar hain tariq ki nazron mein/ Lamhon ne khata ki, sadiyon ne saza paayi.
The first couplet was an exhortation to those who remained on the ground to aspire to reach for the sky. The second was a warning to those who are stuck in the past not to miss the future: it conveyed a lesson that because of the mistakes of a few moments in history, centuries have suffered.
This columnist was at hand last month when Nawaz Sharif arrived at the New York Palace Hotel where the two prime ministers met. It was depressing to watch Singh’s limp handshake, his effort to avoid eye contact with Sharif when the two men greeted each other.
A charitable explanation is that Singh is a good man and after severely criticizing Islamabad in the two days before the maiden encounter with Sharif — to the extent of describing Pakistan as the epicentre of terrorism inside the White House Oval Office in the presence of his Washington host — he felt a little squeamish about any false show of friendliness towards his counterpart from across the border.
However, it is an argument that does not find favour with many insiders in New Delhi. In any case, that does not explain first-hand accounts conveyed to this columnist of their meeting. In contrast to his creative conversation nine years ago, Singh was like a record that got stuck. Whenever Sharif tried to open a subject, Singh kept repeating that cross-border terrorism must stop.
The sad truth is that unlike Dixit and Aziz, who did the spadework before Singh met Musharraf, very little was done to make last month’s summit productive, which it could have been with Sharif back as head of government.
It was the same sad story being repeated again and again in New Delhi’s relations with most neighbouring countries and even with big powers like Russia and the United States of America. Those who now occupy the space vacated by Dixit, his successor, M.K. Narayanan, and other similarly placed aides in the PMO, once enjoyed a reputation for brilliance. But they appear to have been burnt out.
For those down the line who have been looking up to them for direction, recent months have been disappointing and frustrating. If it were only a policy paralysis that the United Progressive Alliance government is generally accused of, it would have been forgivable. But in foreign affairs, it goes beyond that. Costly mistakes are being made, especially in South Asia for which the next government will have to bear the cross.
The temptation to compare Singh’s New York meeting with the one Sharif will have with Barack Obama today is overwhelming. Look at how the PMO’s seniormost foreign policymakers performed and then see how the Americans prepared for today’s Obama-Sharif summit, also their first.
The latter made Afghanistan a deliverable in time for Sharif’s arrival in Washington. Once aides fulfilled their mandate on working out the modalities of US military presence after 2014, engagement was upgraded with the ‘surprise’ arrival of the secretary of state, John Kerry, in Kabul. There President Hamid Karzai announced that a loya jirga or grand assembly of tribal leaders would meet to approve the arrangements before these go to parliament.
Pakistan, in turn, delivered a key terrorist, Latif Mehsud, to the US. Sharif may gripe about his hosts at the White House before and after his visit, but there is no doubt that behind such deliberate understatement this will be the most productive and significant Pakistan-US summit in many years. Our prime minister’s top foreign policy aides could learn much from this and the next government in New Delhi could benefit from such introspection.