Sajjan Jindal is one common denominator between Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif. Jindal's deal in steel, the family is widely connected. While Sajjan is Modi's friend, his brother Naveen has been a congressman. Sajjan is an old friend of Nawaz, shared business concerns shaping the association. Last week, Sajjan met Nawaz in Murree, Pakistan; fuelling intense speculations that rethinking might be in offing in Indo-Pak ties, presently on the edge of precipice. Maryam Nawaz, Sharif's daughter, political confidant as well tweeted, "Mr Jindal is an old friend of the prime minister. Nothing 'secret' about the meeting & should not be blown out of proportion. Thank you."
In Pakistan, the reaction was varied. Imran Khan led PTI gunning for Sharif post Supreme Court Panama-gate verdict filed a legislative assembly resolution in on how and why of the visit? Amidst the hullabaloo in Pakistan over Jindal's visit, a sane note was struck by former foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri described the controversy stirred up by the visit as unfortunate, saying that just because it was part of some backchannel diplomacy; it should not be rejected outright. In fact, he said, some of the best results were achieved as a result of backchannel contacts. Kasuri knows that such back-channel contacts fructify, as India and Pakistan were near to clinching a deal in 2006, though Musharraf's 4 point formula had its critics. Kashmir leader—SAS Geelani opposed it, while the so called moderate fraction of Hurriyat backed it. The deal fell apart, as Musharraf was eased out of office.
Sajjan Jindal, the common denominator has been used as a back-channel facilitator in the past by Modi and Sharif, though it is hardly admitted. Back-channel facilitators provide room for deniability; in case what is desired doesn't click, given the intricacies of official stance framed by foreign office mandarins, leading to rigid stances. Sajjan Jindal was in Jati Umra—Sharif's private residence in Raiwand, suburban Lahore in December, 25, 2015 to attend a wedding. Sharif's granddaughter was getting married. Without a previous note of any sort, Modi in Kabul on return flight to Delhi dropped in Lahore. The date coincided with Sharif's birthday. There was much to celebrate—the wedding, the birthday and a renewal of Indo-Pak ties—though in private setting, away from official scrutiny. In official communications, even commas and semicolons are contested, when it comes to issuing joint communiques or resolving conflicts. Resolving the hotly contested Vietnam conflict was made possible by Kissinger bypassing the foreign office mandarins in Foggy Bottom, housing U.S foreign office. There are other instances of back-channel diplomacy being successfully employed; hence Jindal's intervention whatever it amounts to should be welcomed. Especially so, since Kashmir situation is getting beyond manageable limits, whatever the Indian contention to the contrary might try to prove. The fact stands that the much touted 'Doval Doctrine' has failed to keep Kashmir quiet.
Jindal conduit has worked on quite a few occasions, in case what Barkha Dutt notes in her book, 'This Unquiet Land' is to be believed. Barkha notes Jindal as "the unexpected conduit [between PMs Sharif and Modi] with movie-star looks.'' She writes in her book, "When Sharif was in Delhi, Jindal hosted a tea party for the Pakistani premier right after his meeting with Modi. It attracted little attention in the Indian media but in Pakistan, Sharif drew flak for finding time for Jindal and not for Kashmiri separatists.'' Barkha's note relates to Sharif's Delhi visit to attend Modi's swearing in ceremony. She implies the conduit to be working ever since, as mutually consented by the two leaders, to tide over difficult times. The conduit worked in Kathmandu 2014 SAARC conference, when the two leaders met secretly in Jindal's Kathmandu hotel room, a meeting conveniently denied officially by both sides. It is related that Jindals' are interested in utilising Pakistan corridor to import iron ore from Afghanistan—the raw material needed for producing steel. It could be a shared concern of Indian steel industry—public as well as private. It might have moved much beyond that as Central Asian States, China and Russia are equally interested in using the Pak corridor. The Russian geo-strategists are calling Pakistan, the zipper, given its geostrategic location.
Pakistani newspaper, 'The Express Tribune' related Jindal's back-channel diplomacy being directed to arrange a meeting between the Pakistani and Indian prime ministers on the side-lines of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit. SCO summit of Central Asian States, Russia, China, India and Pakistan is to be held in June in Astana, Kazakhstan, where Pakistan and India are set to become full members of the SCO. The newspaper quoted a senior Pakistani diplomat as relating that, "influential countries in the SCO are pushing Pakistan and India to re-engage so as to ensure that the next summit is held in a conducive environment."
The concerns could extend well beyond Kashmir, though it could hardly be left out of any geostrategic equation. SCO may hold the key to open many locks. India needs to do some hard thinking whether to stand for regional concerns or stand aside to play second fiddle to distant concerns, which relate to how US strategizes vis-a-vis 'Eurasian' bloc, which is fast shaping up, post the Shanghai commitment, and upcoming one belt one road (OBOR) design of China.
Yaar Zinda, Sohbat Baqi [Reunion is subordinate to survival]
(The author is doctor in medicine, a social activist, and a senior columnist firstname.lastname@example.org )