SAARC was not on Rajnath Singh plan, went to stare down Hafiz Saeed and Pakistan

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh was not going to Pakistan for the SAARC meeting of home ministers. The meeting was scaled down because Afghanistan and Bangladesh had decided to pull out and most other countries were sending junior ministers and delegates. So, Rajnath Singh had instructed his office to scale down India’s participation, too, by sending a junior delegation.

That was the status till about a week before the Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) meeting date. Rajnath was of the view that the profile of the meeting did not befit the stature of India’s home minister. In his mind the issue was over and done with.

But then two things happened that pricked the pride of the Thakur from Chandauli (near Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh). The first was the resolution by the Pakistan Parliament asking the United Nations to investigate the “human rights violations” in Kashmir. The second was the open threat by the chief of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) Hafiz Saeed and Salahuddin that they would not let Rajnath Singh set foot on Pakistan soil. It was their contrived bid to show solidarity with Kashmiri separatists and the extreme unrest that broke out in the valley in the wake of Hizbul terrorist Burhan Wani’s death.

“Any Indian minister would have gone to Islamabad not for the love of Pakistan but for the love of Saarc because India is the driving force of the grouping. So, when two globally wanted Pakistan-harboured terrorists were openly threatening bodily harm to the Home Minister of India if he dared attend the Saarc meeting — with the benign indulgence of the Pakistan establishment —that was that. At that instant, Rajnath changed his mind,” a close aide revealed to Firstpost.

Rajnath, said the source, was quite aware of the fact that Indian leaders are judged not by what they do in Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. “The true measure of an Indian leader in the public eye is in how they behave in Pakistan. The reference here is to the jinxed visits of BJP leaders to Pakistan. The redoubtable LK Advani lost not just his party president-ship for saying, on Pakistan soil, that Mohammad Ali Jinnah was a secular leader, but never regained his pre-eminence in the party. Then his close friend and colleague Jaswant Singh undertook a tour to Pakistan and wrote a book eulogising Jinnah. He was sacked at the BJP’s Shimla national executive.

“Rajnath instantly saw an opportunity in the open threat to his life and decided to take the challenge head on. Much to the chagrin of India’s diplomatic circles, he asked for arrangements to be made for his journey,” said the source.

The ministry of external affairs, dreading further deterioration in the already strained relationship with Pakistan, wanted to scale down India’s representation. Officials of the ministry got in touch with the home ministry to dissuade the home minister by impressing upon him the futility of attending a meeting of low-level functionaries of Saarc nations.

But Rajnath, as is his wont, put his foot down. He was intent on going just to stare down the recalcitrant neighbour. Left with no choice the foreign ministry diplomats gave a few do’s and don’ts and asked the home ministry officials to be mindful of who they met and what they said. “We said that would not be necessary because the home minister had decided he would not meet any Pakistani officers or delegations. He would restrict his visit strictly to matters Saarc,” said the source.

And that is what he did from the word go. When he landed at Islamabad airport a Pakistani official delegation received him. He shook hands perfunctorily with a few of them and walked straight past the rest, not even meeting their eyes.

A home ministry official, who accompanied the minister to Pakistan, pointed out that Rajnath remained deliberately aloof. Though his meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif along with a Saarc delegation went off well, he was cold to his counterpart Nisar Ali Khan.

His best act was yet to come. Officials in the home ministry say that his speech, accusing Pakistan (without naming it) of nurturing terrorists clearly got the goat of the Pakistan home minister. He unambiguously arraigned Pakistan for nurturing, encouraging and promoting terrorism. The speech rattled the Pakistan establishment. This led the Pakistani home minister to give the official lunch the miss.

“After Rajnath’s speech, Nisar Ali walked straight past him and instead of walking towards the lunch venue, headed for his car and left. When Rajnath saw this he decided to go to his room and have his meal. Some delegates of the other countries later met him and appreciated his decision and felt the host minister had insulted the Saarc guests by walking out of his do,” the official said.

On his part Singh refused to have any one to one meeting with Pakistani officials and instructed the Indian high commission in Islamabad that he would singularly focus on Saarc meeting. The fact that some terrorist organisations were holding a demonstration a few miles away from the hotel where the Saarc conference was held, exposed the hollowness of Pakistan’s commitment to combating terrorism.

Having made his point tellingly in his speech and cocking a snook at Pakistan-harboured terrorists on Pakistan’s soil, Rajnath decided to waste no more time. The special plane that carried him was called into service two hours before his scheduled departure and he returned satisfied that his 25-hour journey to Pakistan was well worth it.