Ajay Bisaria’s Anger Management: On India-Pak diplomacy

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At The Hindu’s annual Chennai Literary Festival this year, I was particularly interested in Ajay Bisaria’s new book Anger Management: The Troubled Diplomatic Relationship Between India and Pakistan (Aleph Book Co., 2024).

His interview with the editor of The Hindu Varghese K George was aptly titled “India’s last High Commissioner to Pakistan: An Inside Story”. Ajay Bisaria was India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan for three years until 2019, and had earlier been the Principal Secretary for five years to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He writes therefore as an insider, describing some momentous events by dividing the history of the India-Pakistan relationship into several sections.

His book combines both memoir and serious study, and traces the story of India-Pakistan diplomacy “from the point of view of its practitioners, those who exited early and those who stayed long in the trenches”.  Section 1 focuses on the first decade from 1947-1957, and the final Section 8 on his own tenure and what has followed it, from 2017 to 2023.

The interview with Bisaria was peppered with interesting titbits which included anecdotes from when he was a rookie cadet, to Principal Secretary to PM Vajpayee, and later India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan.

He recalled how as a fresh IFS cadet in the 1980s, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had publicly dismissed the Foreign Secretary with these words to the press: “You will meet the new Foreign Secretary soon”.

He also recalled the time when Prime Minister Vajpayee chose Shiv Shankar Menon as the new High Commissioner to Pakistan. Menon purportedly asked the Prime Minister, “Why me”; to which Vajpayee replied, “Because you are innocent!” Vajpayee did really want a fresh start – and new thinking – as a way to move the relationship forward with Pakistan.

More interestingly, Bisaria documents in his book how the relationship between the neighbours gradually deteriorated despite PMs Vajpayee’s, Manmohan Singh’s and Modi’s outreaches to Pakistan, for terror attacks from that neighbour on India put paid to India’s several efforts at peace. In particular, Bisaria expanded at length on the Vajpayee-Musharraf summit in Agra in 2001, as well as the Kathmandu SAARC summit of 2002.

One of Bisaria’s very penetrating observations was about the paradox of cultural intimacy between Pakistanis and North Indians. On his visit to Pakistan, Vajpayee read aloud some Urdu poetry he had written and duly impressed his hosts at a banquet. Manmohan Singh too, shared some Urdu couplets with the Pakistan President on the phone when he took his first phone call after being elected PM. On occasions, Pakistani bands played popular Hindi film music evoking India of the 1950s. However, Bisaria opined “it only helped so much”. At the end of the day, Pakistan was more comfortable with non-Hindi/Urdu speaking emissaries as they reaffirmed their idea that India and Pakistan were quite different – something they were more eager to demonstrate. To that end, they more readily appreciated by South Indian Rikhi Jaipal’s remark in Pakistan that “we are foreigners”. (Jaipal served as First Secretary to Indian Mission to the United Nations).

Talking of the Balakot strike in 2019, Bisaria opined it had marked a paradigm shift in India’s response to terror attacks from across the border, and had introduced a new element in India’s foreign policy. This now forced Pakistan to take into account retaliation from India when unleashing terror or sub-conventional warfare across the border.

Bisaria was forced to leave Pakistan in 2019 when India’s revocation of Article 370 in August of that year had evoked extreme reaction from that country and they wanted the Indian High Commission shut down. The then Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan labelled India’s PM ‘fascist’ and deployed social media assets for a new war against ‘Hindutva’.

For Indian foreign policy buffs, this book on India-Pakistan diplomacy is a treasure-trove of trivia and insights.

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Chitra Sudarshan
Chitra Sudarshan
Chitra Sudarshan is an academic and a public servant.

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