'There are all sorts of characters moving around acting as unofficial representatives of the government and engaging in their own personal foreign policy initiatives.'
'Clearly, the government needs to shut these characters down if it wants to continue enjoying any credibility, both domestically and internationally,' says Sushant Sareen.
The meeting between internationally designated terrorist chieftain Mohammad Saeed and an Indian journalist and political operator, Dr V P Vaidik, in Lahore has caused a veritable storm in not just political circles, but also the media.
Normally, no eyebrows should be raised if anyone who claims to be a journalist meets any extremely undesirable and notorious criminal. Howsoever unpleasant and politically incorrect, such meetings are part and parcel of a scribe's profession. But Dr Vaidik's meeting with Saeed is extremely problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the hint of misrepresentation by him about his contacts and closeness to the new government and his subtle and insidious efforts to put a human face to someone who is by all accounts a monster and mass murderer.
Before detailing the reasons for condemning Vaidik's 'interview', it must be said that for publicity hounds even notoriety is welcome. After all, Dr Vaidik has captured more airtime with the controversy he has generated than he would have got in his decades-long innings as a 'journalist'. What this 15 minutes of fame (or should we say, infamy) does for him and his benefactors and mentors is hardly the issue.
Dr Vaidik has a penchant for hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons. In the early 1990s, he managed to inveigle himself with Mulayam Singh Yadav (whom he lauded as the best thing that happened to Indian politics -- and we all know how that turned out). Over the last few years, he has got close to yoga guru Ramdev, who in turn has been a major supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Dr Vaidik also has a thing for name-dropping and impressing people by referring to senior leaders and politicians by their first names -- tell Nawaz I am in such and such hotel; I asked Ahmed (Shah Massoud) to talk to Gulbadin (Hekmetyar);, I told Hamid (Karzai) to do this and that, and so on and so forth.
The gullible (which includes some senior Indian officials, including at the highest levels in the ministry of external affairs) often assume that he is some kind of a South Asian Henry Kissinger and this tends to open doors for him, especially in places seeking some kind of private access to corridors of power in Delhi.
In a sense, he is the quintessential Delhi Durbari, but also an outsider who presents himself as an insider.
Countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan have been an old hunting ground for Dr Vaidik, where he has managed to establish himself as a very consequential man from Delhi. According to Pakistani sources, Dr Vaidik has presented himself in Pakistan as someone who is very in with the new dispensation in Delhi.
He is believed to have sent signals or at least given an impression to his Pakistani interlocutors that he was some kind of unofficial mediator for the Modi government. This is also the sense that comes out of his interviews to Pakistani television channels. More than anything else, it is this that has stirred the hornet's nest in Delhi.
Asides of the fact that Prime Minister Modi has made it very clear that he doesn't subscribe to back-channel or private diplomacy, even less so by busybodies and self-appointed diplomats, there would have to be something terribly wrong with this government if it was using someone so given to self-promotion like Dr Vaidik to either carry out such diplomacy or even some message.
It is highly unlikely, therefore, that someone as indiscreet as Dr Vaidik would be used for sending any message across the Radcliffe Line. After all, one of the fundamental qualities of a good diplomat is the ability to zip up.
In any case, it is unimaginable that Modi would use a mediator to reach out to an international terrorist. This is where the other problems with Dr Vaidik's meeting come in. From his public utterances he has tried to give an impression of being Modi's advocate to Saeed.
While he claims that he met Saeed in his capacity as a journalist, he has himself stated that he tried to dispel the negative image of Modi that Saeed had.
According to Dr Vaidik, Saeed considered Modi as a 'very dangerous' man which he tried to correct. But is it a journalist's job to provide clarification about his prime minister to a notified terrorist? Instead, Dr Vaidik goes out of his way to tell the terrorist, who is terrified of Modi, not to be afraid?
Who, in any case, has given Dr Vaidik the authority to speak on the prime minister's behalf or for that matter to seek the 'permission' or acceptance of a certified terrorist for a possible visit of India's PM to Pakistan?
Equally offensive is Dr Vaidik's television clip where he says if Pakistan is willing to give independence to Pakistan occuped Kashmir, he would be in favour of India doing the same, but then adds the caveat that he would prefer if Kashmiris are given the same level of freedom as people in other parts of India.
Obviously, Dr Vaidik is either totally ignorant of India's Constitution, or worse, he will say anything depending on the audience he is addressing.
It is also not a journalist's job to impart human values or change the heart of the person he is interviewing, nor is it their job to engage their interviewees in philosophical and metaphysical discussions. Dr Vaidik defends himself talking about the life changing transformation of Valmiki and Angulimaal from fearsome dacoits and killers into saints.
Asides of the fact that Dr Vaidik is neither Lord Ram nor the Buddha who could transform a monster like Saeed into a saint, it is also not his job as a journalist to do any such thing.
What offends the sensibilities even more is that there is an insidious attempt on Dr Vaidik's part to tell his compatriots that perhaps they need to show patience with terrorists like Saeed because there is still a chance of reforming them.
From his tone and tenor and his efforts to attach a degree of acceptability and reasonableness to Saeed, Dr Vaidik is almost behaving as Saeed's ambassador to India. Despite the plethora of evidence against Saeed, Dr Vaidik, who clearly has pretensions of being a psychoanalyst (why else would he want to get inside Saeed's head?) seems all set to be handing a 'good character' certificate to him.
Even if he met Saeed as a journalist, Dr Vaidik should have done what all journalists should do when they interview their subject: Research the man, his organisation and his activities. This, he clearly did not do, which is apparent from the ill-informed questions he raised about Saeed's court cases.
The entire Vaidik-Saeed affair is a wake-up call for the Modi government. There are all sorts of characters moving around acting as unofficial representatives of the government and engaging in their own personal foreign policy initiatives. Even before the election results were declared, Pakistani papers carried stories about an un-named NRI from the US who met top Pakistani leaders claiming to be Modi's messenger.
Then there was the dubious character -- a Kashmiri who was a 'leader' in Ram Vilas Paswan's party -- who met the separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani. After a furore, he denied representing Modi. And now we have the Vaidik episode. Clearly, the government needs to shut these characters down if it wants to continue enjoying any credibility, both domestically and internationally.
Equally important, the government must keep people like Ramdev, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and other such characters at an arm's length from interfering in government policy. These people have neither the knowledge of intricacies of diplomacy, nor do they have command over the issues of national security. Yet they insist on making efforts for 'world peace'.
They should be encouraged to stick to what they do best -- yoga, pranayama and what have you -- and not allowed to interfere in affairs of the State and government. Similarly, other religious leaders from other faiths should also not be encouraged to act as envoys of the Indian State. These people do more damage than any good.
Way back in the 1980s when India had taken action against Nepal, one of the sankaracharyas took it upon himself to intercede on behalf of the Nepalese king, only because he was a Hindu king. While the sankaracharya received traction from some members of the Rajiv Gandhi government, the then Indian ambassador gave the sankaracharya short shrift and did not allow him to interfere and impose himself on government policy. This is what is expected from the Modi government and the sooner they shut these busybodies, the better.
Image: Dr V P Vaidik, right, meets Lashkar-e-Tayiba terrorist Mohammad Saeed in Lahore.
Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation.