Prime Minister Narendra Modi converted an informal and entirely innocent dinner hosted by Mani Shankar Aiyar at his New Delhi residence on December 6 into a controversy and an election issue in Gujarat.
He didn't even spare former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has responded with an angry, outraged rejoinder. Since I was one of the guests present at the now famous dinner and voting is over in Gujarat, let me put the record straight.
The dinner was held because Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri was going to be in town for a private visit to attend a wedding. Kasuri was Pakistan's Foreign Minister when General Parvez Musharraf was Pakistan's President.
Kasuri is known to be a "dove" as far as Indo-Pak relations are concerned, and he has written a book, detailing how close the two countries were in coming to an agreement on the Kashmir issue when he was Pakistan's Foreign Minister and Manmohan Singh India’s Prime Minister.
Kasuri and Aiyar were contemporaries at Cambridge University in the early 1960s, hence their friendship goes back to their undergraduate days.
Aiyar must have felt that Kasuri's visit to Delhi would be a good occasion to get his like-minded friends together for an exchange of views on Indo-Pak ties, in an informal setting. Hence, he invited several former Indian high commissioners to Islamabad and other retired senior diplomats. Among the invitees were also Manmohan Singh, former Vice President Hamid Ansari, former Foreign Minister Natwar Singh, former army chief General Deepak Kapoor, the present Pakistan High Commissioner to New Delhi, and three journalists, of which I was one.
Except for the politicians, nobody was from the Congress Party. And there was nothing "secret" about the meeting. With a former Prime Minister and Vice President coming, along with a former Pakistan Foreign Minister, our intelligence agencies must have been fully aware of the dinner.
There were around 15 of us, I think. The names of those present were printed out and each person had an assigned chair in the living room. The topic of discussion was Indo-Pak relations, and the format was that everybody would get a few minutes each to share his views on the topic, after which Kasuri would respond. As Kasuri’s flight was delayed, it was decided we would start and he would join us later, which he did. Neither Manmohan Singh, nor the Pakistan High Commissioner took any part in the discussion. They simply listened. Not a single reference was made to the Gujarat election, not even to current domestic politics. Needless to say Kashmir was discussed, but only in relation to Indo-Pak ties. In my view, it was a frank, fruitful and valuable exchange of views on a subject of great concern to all those present.
How this was later falsely and insidiously interpreted in certain quarters as some sort of "conspiracy", in collusion with Pakistan, to interfere in the Gujarat election and, what's more, to install Ahmed Patel as chief minister of Gujarat beats me! One can therefore understand Manmohan Singh's outraged reaction and his strong refutation of Prime Minister Modi's false accusation. In effect, Modi was calling Manmohan Singh a traitor who was colluding with Pakistan in interfering in the internal affair of India, as well as accusing all of us who were present at the dinner of anti-national, treasonable, activities. How absurd and how irresponsible!
Let me take this a little further. If Modi really believes what he said, shouldn't Kasuri and the Pakistan High Commissioner be forthwith expelled from India, and necessary action taken against all of us who were present at the dinner, including our former Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and army chief?
I think Modi should have the grace to admit that he has made a mistake and to apologise, if not to the others at the dinner party, at least to Manmohan Singh. That is the least a responsible Prime Minister should do. The apology should also come from Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad, both of whom publicly endorsed what Modi had said.
I would like to add a brief note on Mani Shankar Aiyar, the centre of the storm. We have known each other since our school days, and we were together in college and university. His wife, Suneet, a Sikh, like myself, is also an old and close friend. My friendship with her goes back before she married Mani Shankar. Mani did something in mid-career that few of us have the guts to do: He left a successful career in the diplomatic service, and joined politics to serve the country in a more meaningful way. I often wish more of us who are educated and comfortable, yet concerned about the well-being and progress of our nation, would do the same. I think Indian politics would have been better if that had happened.
Be that as it may, Mani is one of the most honest men I know, with utmost integrity. He is also outspoken, to the extent that what he sometimes says is misunderstood and gets him into trouble. That is his nature. But he has the kind of values all of us need to cherish and to promote in our multi-cultural and multi-religion nation: Belief in democracy, in secularism, and in humanism.
(Rahul Singh is a former Editor of the 'Reader's Digest' and 'Indian Express')