Imran Khan said: “India needs take but one step and we will take two”. We can be dismissive of such words, or see it as an invitation to re-frame the narrative.
Our former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the veteran and respected journalist Kuldip Nayar passed away within a week of each other. Sandwiched between their funerals was the “birth” of the Imran Khan government in Pakistan. Imran was sworn in as the Prime Minister the day after Atalji breathed his last. Prima facie, these are three unconnected events. But when seen in the context of India-Pakistan relations, there is a linking thread. During their lifetimes, Atalji and Kuldip Nayar strongly resisted the dominant narrative of Partition that destined the relations between these two countries to a fate of mutual suspicion, if not enmity. Imran, in his first public pronouncement as the Prime Minister-elect, also rejected this sclerotic view of the past and the future. This article is written in a spirit of reflection about this coincidental confluence and the redemptive possibilities inherent in the link uniting these three people.
I have a personal connect with all three individuals. Indirectly with Atalji. My father was the foreign secretary when he was the foreign minister. And directly with Kuldip Nayar and Imran Khan. The Mehta and Nayar families have been long-standing friends. I was “Kuldip kaka’s” research assistant in 1977 when he speed wrote the book on the Emergency. And I was a classmate of Imran Khan at a university in England. It is this personal connect, rather than any direct involvement with the complexities of India-Pakistan politics, that has prompted these reflections.
My father accompanied Atalji to Pakistan in 1977. Atalji had recently been appointed the foreign minister of the newly-elected Janata government. Pakistan was his first international trip in that position. On their return, I recollect my father telling me about the extraordinary impact Atalji had on the Pakistani public and his interlocutors. Details of that famous trip are provided in various books, including my father’s autobiography, but what is important to recollect here is how he disarmed the assembled press that had gathered to listen to not just the foreign minister of India, but also the man who had, for years, as an opposition member of the Jan Sangh party in Parliament, called for “Akhand Bharat” and led a demonstration against the Simla Agreement.
During his opening remarks, Atalji acknowledged implicitly his anti-Pakistan past, but then offered Pakistan the promise of sincere and friendly relations. Later, he embedded his secular credentials by visiting a mosque, a gurdwara and a temple. And at the banquet in his honour, he outshone his host Agha Shahi by delivering an extempore speech in beautiful Urdu.
Atalji knew he was taking risks, particularly with his ideological allies in India, but he refused to be strategic or straitjacketed by the old narrative. The outcome was tangible. Cricketing ties were resumed after a gap of 18 years; the consulates in Karachi and Mumbai, which had been closed since the 1971 India-Pakistan War, were reopened, and an agreement was signed to construct a hydroelectric dam on the Chenab river.
Kuldip Nayar witnessed first-hand the traumas of Partition. His family were uprooted from Sialkot and were compelled to migrate to India. Most people who faced similar suffering did not, perhaps could not, forget or forgive. They were, with understandable warrant, consumed by memory. But Kuldip Nayar looked beyond that harrowing tragedy, never diminishing it, and yet never allowing it to constrain his vision of the future. All his working life, he used the power of his pen and the strength of his personality to remind people in both the countries of their common civilisational inheritance of tolerance and decency, and the immutable logic of geography.
He co-authored the book ‘Tales of Two Cities’ with Asif Noorani, a Pakistani journalist. And from 1992 onwards, year after year and despite the infirmities of age, he led a candlelight vigil on the nights of August 14-15 at the Wagah land border between India and Pakistan, shouting “Hindustan-Pakistan Dosti Zindabad”. The fulsome tributes that flowed from Pakistan on the announcement of his death testify to the chord that he struck in the minds and hearts of people on the other side. Like Atalji, Kuldip Nayar also refused to accept the conventional narrative of partition. Rather, he saw in the history of these two countries possibilities that included dosti and cooperation.
Imran Khan is now the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and he is constrained by the burdens of his office and the various constituencies that he must respond to. But if one were to look at his public proclamations, first as a cricketer and then as a politician, one can have no doubt that he would echo the chants raised by Kuldip Nayar. Imran has been engaged with India and Indians for more than four decades. Like every great sportsman, he knows that rivalry on the pitch does not foreclose the possibility of conviviality beyond it. The speech that he delivered shortly after his party emerged as the single-largest party in the Pakistan assembly points to that conviction. He said: “India needs take but one step and we will take two”. We can, as many in our press have chosen to, be suspicious and dismissive of such words as empty rhetoric. But we can also, as I believe Atalji and Kuldip Nayar would have chosen to, see them as an invitation to re-frame the narrative.
History is replete with examples of patterns of behaviour between nations locked into a narrow rut by suspicion, paranoia and conflict. The Israel-Palestine conflict and the decades of the Cold War are two such examples. But history also offers examples of how leadership driven by courage, conviction and vision can alter such patterns in a blink. Consider the dramatic reordering of the map of Europe following Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision in 1989 to set aside the old rulebook on the Soviet Union and the Cold War.
Atalji and Kuldip Nayar displayed such qualities of leadership during their lifetime. I know that Imran Khan has such qualities. I reflect on the possibilities that this offers for India and Pakistan to contemplate a fresh narrative.
The writer is Chairman & Senior Fellow, Brookings India.