A year ago all that the people saw was a quick handshake but away from TV cameras Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif held an hour-long secret meeting on the sidelines of the Saarc summit in Kathmandu.
Both the leaders shared their constraints while agreeing they needed more time and greater political space to move forward with public engagements. The meeting was facilitated by Indian steel magnate Sajjan Jindal, who is the brother of former Congress MP Naveen Jindal.
These revelations have been made by well-known television journalist Barkha Dutt in her debut book, This Unquiet Land — Stories from India’s Fault Lines. HT has exclusive access to the book, which is published by Aleph Books Company and will hit the stores on Wednesday.
Unknown to the media and certainly the public, both Modi and Sharif had found someone to “keep them connected even when things got difficult”, Dutt writes, describing Jindal as an informal messenger serving as a “covert bridge” between the two leaders.
Despite repeated attempts, Jindal did not return HT’s calls or messages. Ministry of external affairs spokesperson Vikas Swarup, too, did not comment.
During their first meeting when Sharif came to Delhi for Modi’s swearing-in — the two PMs decided to keep the reins of the relationship in their hands.
“However, they agreed that it could be useful to talk informally through a mutual acquaintance they both felt comfortable with.”
The acquaintance was Jindal, who hosted a tea party for Sharif after his meeting with Modi in Delhi. When Dutt went to meet the Pakistani leader at the Capital’s Taj Mansingh hotel, she saw Jindal escort Sharif’s son Hussain for lunch.
“It was no secret that Indian steelmakers, both state and private players, were looking to foster friendly relations with Pakistan; they needed this to happen so they could ferry iron ore from Afghanistan by road across Pakistan from where it could be shipped to ports in western and southern India,” Dutt writes. But, Jindal’s ties with Sharif, she says, appeared to have gone beyond that of a businessman with the head of a government – and the two had become “confidantes”.
The proximity was at play in Kathmandu, where the Saarc summit was held on November 26 and 27. Modi called up Jindal from Nepal and asked him to take the earliest flight to the Nepali capital. “Jindal was asked to discreetly reach out to his ‘friend’ across the border,” writes Dutt. The two leaders then met quietly “in the privacy of Jindal’s hotel room”, where they spent an hour together.
Modi – hinting at the upcoming Jammu and Kashmir elections – indicated while he was keen, “circumstances” did not permit him to reopen formal channels. Sharif spoke about “constrictions” imposed on him by the security establishment and how his “negotiating power with the army had been gradually whittled away”.
“This under-the radar encounter paved the way for Modi to openly reach out to Sharif two months later through a phone call that was positioned as an innocuous good-luck call for the World Cup,” Dutt writes.
Her account reinforces a well-known fact — domestic politics often determines the course of the fragile bilateral relationship.
Dutt’s own assessment of Jindal’s role is that it did not involve negotiating “tricky matters of geo-politics”. “He was more like a covert bridge that connected them if either wanted to reach out to the other side sans protocol or publicity.” And, because Jindal’s role was off the record, it came with plausible deniability.
Dutt’s book is a personalised account that paints a broad canvas drawing from her journalistic experience. The place of women in India, Kargil war, Mumbai terror attack, Kashmir, national politics and its lead players and a society in flux – it covers it all.