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Last Updated Friday April 20 2018 11:54 PM IST

The go-betweens in international relations

Sachidananda Murthy
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Sajjan Jindal Sajjan Jindal. File photo

Sajjan Jindal is the most low profile member of the Jindal business family, which ranks among the top 25 richest business groups in the country. While both his parents were ministers in Haryana government, his younger brother Naveen Jindal was a high profile member of Lok Sabha.

Even though Sajjan wants to be in parliament, he prefers a quiet entry into Rajya Sabha. However, now he is caught in the cross hairs of international attention as the man who is trusted by the prime ministers of two bitterly feuding neighboring countries.

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Both Narendra Modi and his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif have used the 57-year-old as the back channel when formal contacts between the two governments have broken down.

When Modi made a surprise decision on Christmas Day, 2015 to visit the Pakistan PM’s home near Lahore and join a dinner held to celebrate Sharif’s birthday and his grand daughter's wedding, Jindal was among the invitees already present.

Soon the relations deteriorated after the attack on Pathankot air base. But when Nawaz Sharif underwent a heart surgery in London five months later, Jindal was at hand and is believed to have conveyed special messages from the Indian prime minister.

But his latest meeting with Sharif, which came close on the heels of the death sentence of Kulbhushan Yadav, has raised the hackles of the powerful Pakistani army. Reports from Islamabad said Sharif was even asked to give a full briefing to the army chief on the discussion with Jindal.

Jindal, who is into steel and power, has a tie up with Ittefaq Industries, owned by Sharif and his younger brother Shehbaz Sharif. Using businessmen, arms dealers, scientists, academicians and journalists for back-channel contacts between countries, which do not have good relations, is part of diplomacy and statecraft for a long time.

When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister, he had relied on journalist-turned-think-tank R.K. Mishra of Observer Research Foundation to send messages to Nawaz Sharif, which resulted in the historic bus journey to Lahore.

Similarly, when the United States put sanctions on India after the 1998 nuclear tests by Vajpayee government, London-based Hinduja brothers were used for informal contacts with several European and African powers to ensure Indian trade did not suffer.

Likewise, business groups, which had strong influence in the Muslim world had been pressed into service by prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao to soften tempers after the Babri Masjid demolition.

In the United States, businessmen traveled behind the Iron Curtain to Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries even when the capitalists and communists were on an eyeball to eyeball encounter.

The American and British governments used Hong Kong industrialists to go behind the Bamboo Curtain to Communist China to work on the thaw, which happened after the death of Chairman Mao.

Interestingly, the business contacts of president Donald trump with Vladimir Putin's Russia is a raging controversy in United States, though Trump was not used by his predecessors for back-channel diplomacy. But Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, who was the chief of petroleum giant Exxon till he joined the Trump administration, had excellent personal contact with Putin, which led to the biggest American-Russian oil deal. But when relations between Putin and Barack Obama soured over Ukraine, Tillerson couldn't do much.

Now that Jindal's role has come for public discussion in Pakistan, he has maintained silence on the confidential information given to him by the two prime ministers. That is a quality leaders admire in confidential go-betweens.

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