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Newsmaker: Salman Bashir

Now, India waltzes with Bashir

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Pakistan Foreign Secretary is coming to Delhi, which is a prized posting. Wondering why he was appointed?

First, the story of how he was made Foreign Secretary of Pakistan.

Those of a certain age will recall the public sacking of Indian Foreign Secretary in 1987. At a press conference, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was asked a question about something his foreign secretary had said. Gandhi’s reply was: “You will have a new foreign secretary soon”. Venkateswaran resigned immediately and later remarked wryly that he used to be ‘distinguished foreign secretary” but now was “extinguished foreign secretary.

Salman Bashir got the job in somewhat similar circumstances. had been assassinated in 2007 in the middle of elections. Bashir was posted in Beijing as ambassador. Riaz Ahmad Khan was foreign secretary. The Bhutto-Zardari family was convinced that outgoing President, had had some role in Bhutto’s assassination but was equally clear that without an independent probe it would be impossible to unearth the conspiracy. Accordingly in 2008, the family asked for a UN probe into the assassination. Riaz Ahmad Khan opposed this with everything he had, going so far as to say to newspapers that going to the UN Security Council to constitute a commission would bracket Pakistan with countries like Rwanda, Lebanon and former Yugoslavia where UN had set up similar commissions; and that he could never countenance such a step.

This prompted Zardari to say in a TV interview: “All these people (, Pakistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations and Khan, who concurred that a UN investigation would be disastrous for Pakistan) are inflexible, lack thinking and if Pakistani bureaucracy and establishment had a vision, Pakistan would not be in the state as it is today.”

Khan quit and met Prime Minister , giving him a shortlist of three officers who could succeed him. Among them was Salman Bashir. The Pakistan press was surprised: But possibly even more surprised was Bashir himself.

Any way, he became foreign secretary in April 2008. Then barely months after he took over, there was another earthquake. On 26 November 2008, Mumbai was attacked.

At first Pakistan was in denial about the identity of the attackers. Then Interior Minister Rahman Malik conceded that while all the Mumbai conspirators might not be Pakistani, they had left Pakistani shores on boats. Then, in February 2009, Salman Bashir and others conceded not just to India but to other western nations as well, that those involved, including Ajmal Kasab were indeed Pakistani. Bashir is quoted in that oracle of our times, Wikileaks as telling the US that Pakistan was determined to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice: Pakistan had not only condemned the attacks but Pakistani intelligence agencies had done a preliminary survey, had dovetailed parts of the Indian dossier on the identity of the conspirators and had registered a first information report (FIR). More suspects had been taken into custody. All Pakistan wanted, he told the Americans, was normalisation of relations with India and an end to India bad-mouthing Pakistan all over the world.

In other words, it was Bashir who was the man on the spot, handling the virulent global hostility to Pakistan in the wake of 26/11.

But it was during Bashir’s tenure as foreign secretary that on the list of Pakistan’s pet hates, India slid several notches and the US came to assume pride of place. The drone attacks which killed unarmed civilians in Pakistan’s tribal areas would have outraged any civil servant. But the worst cut was the hunting down of Osama bin Laden in a house in Abbottabad by US Navy SEALs without as much as a by your leave from Pakistan. In the circumstances, Bashir did what he could to save face for Pakistan. He told BBC that Pakistan had informed the US as far back as 2009 that the house in Abbottabad was a ‘location of interest’.

"Of all the al Qaida key people who were picked up or arrested, it was done by the ISI—by our intelligence. All the significant people who were picked up were in Pakistani cities and towns, and it is worth remembering that,” Bashir said in the same interview.

Bashir comes to India at a time when Pakistan-US relations continue to deteriorate; but India-Pakistan relations are on the up. He will be the man who will negotiate the dates for Manmohan Singh’s visit to Pakistan—and will plan what India and Pakistan should do in the run-up to the visit. His Delhi stint may help him appreciate better, what life is like on the other side of the fence.

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