Mani Shankar Aiyar is widely known as the political wit perennially out of political favour. But that is reductive of his encyclopaedic knowledge and keen insight. Over a 27-year career in the Indian Foreign Service, and later in his role both in Rajiv Gandhi’s PMO and now, as a Minister for the North East Region and Panchayati Raj, Aiyar has had a deep involvement with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Over a four-hour conversation, full of lively anecdote, he goes beyond the alarm calls to paint a more measured picture of the subcontinent. Some excerpts.

How would you read the terror attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team?
It is a manifestation of the growing menace of terrorism the entire subcontinent is facing. There is absolutely no doubt Pakistan is a manufacturing centre of this terrorism, but we must understand this terrorism is of such a nature, it is attacking its Frankenstein creator as much as anybody else. And now that Frankenstein is as interested as other victims in keeping safe from its own monster, a solution, in a long-term sense, might lie in building a kind of cooperative venture among all the victims of terrorism, rather than in pointing fingers. The problem for us is that because some elements in the Pakistan establishment are among the key manufacturers of terror, if we start cooperating with them, there is a fear that the information might get leaked to the terrorists themselves. Still, at the end of the day, I believe a South Asia-wide cooperative against terrorism is what we really need.

Wouldn’t this parallel America’s unsuccessful war on terror, and engender more subcontinental tension?
There was no co-operation there, the victims were never coopted into the process we are talking about. The Americans just declared a unilateral war on terror and resorted to multi-military machinery. The rats just ran away, and not all the king’s men, nor all the king’s horses, could ferret them out. I am advocating something quite different.

Do you believe Pakistan is facing a new danger mark in its history? Is it under threat of being balkanised?
It is true Pakistan is facing a very dangerous moment in its history. There is a large body of opinion in India that thinks it is a failed state or a failing state. But I do not think so. The country is, indeed, reaping the wages of both what it has done and what has been done to it. For too long, it has allowed itself to become an international pawn and lent itself to foreign policy goals based on short-term pragmatism rather than any long-term vision or ethics. After all, Osama bin Laden may have still been a playboy in Saudi Arabia or America if he had not been transplanted to Afghanistan and propped up with arms and money by the international community. That apart, the Pakistani establishment itself has focused on building its idea of nationhood based on projecting India as its enemy, and by stoking trouble in Kashmir. Much of what is happening in Pakistan today is the blowback of all this.

Having said that, I don’t think it is in any danger of being balkanised. In 1964, when I joined the foreign service, Shishir Ghosh gave us a lecture in which he said Pakistan’s only expression of nationality was on anti-Indian terms. Even if this were true then, four decades later it isn’t. Postpartition generations constitute 70 to 80 percent of their population; they have no memory of being Indian. Sixty-two years after independence, I am convinced there is a very strong bonding adhesive that holds Pakistan together. Their sense of being Pakistani is as strong as being Sindhi or Baloch. So I do not see the country splintering. You must also remember Islamist forces in Pakistan have never had more than two percent of the vote.

That is true, but the people in Swat voted for a liberal party and it still caved in to the Taliban and the Sharia. Should Pakistan — and by extension India — worry about an increasing Taliban dominance?
I certainly think a growing Taliban influence is a cause for worry, but we need to be realistic about what happened in Swat. There is an extraordinary set of circumstances there that is not replicable elsewhere in Pakistan. There are no American drones bombing villages and killing innocent people elsewhere in Pakistan as they are in Swat. Swat has had a long history of struggle between extremists. I think the political party there is using a kind of homeopathic approach to the problem: it is trying to use one kind of poison to destroy another. Use moderate extremism to fight extreme extremism. I am not sure this will work, and it may certainly help the worse kind of poison gain strength, but to move from that worry to an assumption that the rest of Pakistan is under threat of a Taliban takeover is too big a leap. You must remember, like India, Pakistan is a very populous, vast and diverse society. It is not Kandahar. It has many competing ethnicities and a very westernised, sophisticated elite. Pakistanis have also displayed a huge commitment to democracy each time an opportunity has presented itself. So, to say yesterday Swat, tomorrow Rawalpindi, and then Karachi, is just too alarmist a position.

Street war Terror attack on Benazir Bhutto’s rally in Karachi, Photos: AFP

Why are our neighbours — Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — prone to such convulsions? Why are they more precarious democracies than India?
The answer to this lies in the fact that Jawaharlal Nehru — who was Prime Minister for the first 17 crucial years of our upbringing as a modern nation — was dedicated to five very important principles of nation-building that our neighbours have not been equally committed to. The first of these is the idea of plurality and secularism. Under Nehru’s stewardship, India has, almost uniquely in the world, not only expressed its nationhood as a belief in diversity, but a celebration of it. Unity in diversity is the great subcontinental truth we all have to live with, if we want to survive as a democracy. It is not merely an ideal; it is pragmatic. All our neighbours who are in trouble are nations that have deviated from this to express nationhood in dangerously exclusivist ways.

The second thing is, Nehru was not only committed to the concept of democracy, but also to building the institutions of democracy. That bulwark has almost never been changed in our existence as a nation in 62 years. In Pakistan — under Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan — there was the same dedication to democracy, but their stewardship did not last as long, and their institutions were far less robust. So, despite an aching yearning for democracy among Pakistanis, they missed the bus by not having a Nehru among their midst in their formative years. The same thing happened in Bang – ladesh. At the beginning, there wasn’t the same commitment to building democratic institutions; soon after, with the brutal coup in 1975 when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family were killed, whatever had been built up was brushed aside.

Sri Lanka’s record of democratic institutions was far superior to India. So why did they fail? With Solomon Bandar – anaike’s victory in 1956, Sri Lanka jettisoned the secular ethos with which it had fought its freedom movement and opted for sectarianism and an exclusivist Sinhala identity. Over the last 30 years, Sri Lanka has suffered such a setback because of this, it is almost impossible to remember that Sri Lanka was once poised to be the Singapore of this region.

Finally, the other Nehruvian principle that has kept our democracy robust is Nehru’s commitment to a ‘socialistic pattern of society’. He accepted the Gandhian ethic that the purpose of the state‘s economic policy was welfare of the poor. In Pakistan, on the other hand, there was a blatant and blanket adoption of the capitalist model. In 1965, it was the secondmost industrialised country in Asia, after Japan. But this was concentrated in the hands of 22 feudal families and the notorious ‘303’ — the civil servants in collusion with these families. All of this came crashing down when Ayub Khan undertook his coup. The other factor in the instability Pakistan faces today is the fact that they also happily allied themselves to the Americans. Pakistan was also founded on the principle that religion constitutes nationality. This is an almost untenable premise. If being a Muslim makes you belong to Pakistan, then why is there a border between Muslim Afghanistan and Muslim Iran? And why would some of its most bitter disputes have been with its Muslim neighbours? Religion is a very poor basis for organising a nation. For all these reasons, these nation states did not become as strong in absorbing the buffeting that all nation-building involves. But while we may be stronger and more stable than our neighbours today, we have to remember that the same potential for stability and democracy exists in our neighbours. And if we move away from these ideals of plurality and secularism, we have the same potential for being torn apart.

Is there a danger of Indian Muslims being affected by the Taliban?
Its spreading influence is certainly a cause for concern, but the answer, as far as Indian Muslims go, does not lie in standing on the border of Pakistan and, like King Canute, ordering the waves to go back. What we have to do is address all the issues facing the Indian Muslim six decades after independence. These issues are meti culously documented in Justice Sachar’s report. We just have to act on them to integrate the Indian Muslim into the larger Indian family. Having said that, there will always be the individual grievance that is vulnerable to the terrorist project, and you can’t stop that. You just have to ensure there is no generic grievance. What many Indians don’t know or have forgotten is that given the restrictive franchise of 1946-47, only about five to 13 percent of the Muslim population voted for the creation of Pakistan. So, there is always the danger of exaggerating the Indian Muslim’s susceptibility to Pakistan.

We also have to ask ourselves, how many people really cleave to violence and radical views? After all, when the Hindutva wave was at its height, many Hindus might have felt it was a just cause. But with the ugly demolition of the Babri Masjid, I can bet you millions of Hindus were filled with self-disgust. To the extent that even LK Advani later distanced himself from the demolition. A few days ago, I was in Orissa at a massive gathering of Muslims. It was heartwarming to see how strongly they endorsed the Deoband fatwa against terrorism.

Riot police in Bangladesh

President Barack Obama was suppo – sed to herald a policy change in the region. But he is also focussing on the military option in Afghanistan, although no one has ever won a fight there. Conversely, is it possible to hold talks with forces like the Taliban?
A part of statecraft is the use of force against people as wedded to force as the Taliban is. But alongside, there has to be a cooption of the local population in order to make it a popular resistance rather than an imposed victory by foreign forces — especially a ‘victory’ by unmanned planes that are killing indiscriminately. Obama’s strategy is geared to fail unless it works in these other components. Seven-eights of the money being spent by the West in Afghanistan is on military hardware and software, only one-eight on development. Obama needs to change that. I am proud that as a Minister for Panchayati Raj, my own involvement in Afghanistan, requested by President Karzai, has been about empowering their local governance.

Let’s shift focus. As Minister for the North East, you are well-placed to talk about Bangladesh’s impact on India.
I was there as an Under Secretary at the very minute that the surrender document was being signed in Dhaka in 1971. So it’s a big disappointment when I look back 40 years that this wildly exciting event — the liberation of Bangladesh, and Mrs Gandhi actually withdrawing our troops within three months of its liberation — did not lead to better relations between us. We showed ourselves to be a noble nation, willing to sacrifice our own for the sake of others, and yet, respect the sovereignty of a small neighbour. So, looking back, why is Bangladesh denying us transit facilities that East Pakistan extended to us through 18 of the most tense years of the India- Pakistan relationship? And why is Indian diplomacy not able to get around this? As Minister for the North East, I have realised how much this has harmed the region and its relationship with India itself.

So yes, I do think we need to reorient our foreign policy vis-a-vis Bangladesh in a way that will help the North East realise its immense potential. India’s recent decision to open up to Bangladeshi investment gives me hope. Given Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s massive majority and her attitude towards us, notwithstanding the very serious setback we’ve seen in the last few days, I believe the India-Bangladesh relationship can be improved.

Isn’t Bangladesh beset by the same liberal polity versus army-and-Islamist forces axis? Is it as precarious as Pakistan, but less on our radar?
I think it’s much less precarious and that is because Bangladesh internally is a much more plural society than Pakistan ever aspired to be. Pakistan is, in fact, a very plural society, but its ideology forces it to present itself as a more unitary entity than it really is.

The average Indian thinks of Bangladesh in terms of the HUJI or the problem of Bangladeshi immigrants. How would you rate these concerns?
The HUJI is definitely a problem area. How many proxy soldiers are there in the Kashmir valley? Estimates range from about 2,000 to 6,000. Yet we need an army a hundred times its size to contain it. The numbers are always small, but the capacity for havoc is huge. The HUJI also has definite links with ULFA. Many of these groups, in fact, seem to be forging links with each other. But you have to abstract this from Islam. Terror and its allies in India, or elsewhere, has nothing to do with any religion. In Nagaland and Manipur, terrorist groups are Christian, the ULFA is Hindu, the Naxals have no religion, the Sinhalese outfits are Buddhist, you had Sikh terrorism, and, of course, there is LeT or the Indian Mujahideen that are Islamic.

I believe panchayati raj is the ultimate solution to all of this. There was an excellent Planning Commission report about using panchayati raj as an instrument to deal with extremist affected areas in central India. How has terrorism been pushed back in Nagaland? I think the village development boards and councils have had more to do with that than any amount of army action. Giving people a sense of participation in their own governance is much more effective than shooting or imprisoning, or Salwa Judum. Maybe all anti-terrorist initiatives should be placed under the Minister of Panchayati Raj.

What is the problem area we should be focusing on then in Bangladesh?
The problem area is the relationship between the military and the liberal polity. The relationship between those who have thebanduk and those who have the ballot. It is heartening that the army has been disciplined enough not to go on a rampage against the mutineers. Sheikh Hasina has been able to be very stern, and at the same time rein in a lynching mentality that could easily have been stoked in the army in response to what happened.

How is it that the army has never fallen foul of democracy in India?
As I said earlier, what saved India was Nehru’s unflinching commitment to the democratic process. As a college boy, I remember sitting in the Visitor’s Gallery in Parliament. Nehru had just dismissed EMS Namboodiripad’s government in Kerala. We sat transfixed as Comrade Dange tore into Nehru. At the climax of his oration, he pointed at Nehru and said, “You are like Yudhistir. When he lied about Aswathama, his chariot immediately fell to the ground. Your chariot too has fallen today.” Did Nehru call in the army? No, he listened to the indictment, then stood up and gave his answer.

Moving to Sri Lanka, do you think this is really endgame for the LTTE? And how will it affect India?
I’m not 100 percent sure it’s the endgame, because the LTTE still has 58 square kilometers to operate from. I don’t quite accept the complacent statements coming out of Colombo. But even if this war were over, the LTTE is not over. They could continue being a destructive force in the Sri Lankan, and possibly even the Indian, polity. There has to be a political solution which addresses the grievances of the people. Panchayati raj is the solution to everything. I am not being facetious when I say this. It is the only way to wean people away from violent protest. Now Mahindra Rajapaksa who, curiously, I first met at a panchayati raj workshop in Dehradun, says he really believes in grassroots democratic institutions. What people wonder is that, is his idea of panchayati raj in Sri Lanka the same as basic democracy under Ayub Khan or the lazim system under Musharraf — institutions of local democracy designed to undermine democracy at higher levels — or is it a Rajiv Gandhi concept of local government? That is the question that Rajapaksa and history will have to answer once the peace process begins.