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Outing a personal secret as a lesson for Imran: Featuring Vajpayee, Nawaz & a bit of me

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Nawaz Sharif made a dramatic bid for peace with Vajpayee but was tripped by Pakistan’s army. It won’t be different for Imran.

The day Imran Khan takes oath as prime minister of Pakistan — even as Gen. Zia-ul-Haq’s 30th death anniversary is being observed — should be ideal for me to tell this still mostly-untold story of a dramatic attempt at peace-making by the elected leaders of our two countries. One of the two leaders it involves passed away Thursday. The other is incarcerated in a brutal Rawalpindi prison. Another part player in this saga is this writer. This week’s National Interest, therefore, is also in the nature of a confession.

Mian Nawaz Sharif won his second term in 1997. Shortly after, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA took charge in India. India-Pakistan relations went into deep freeze with Pokhran-2 and Pakistan’s tit-for-tat in Chagai, in an ironical nuclear jugalbandi.

By the last quarter of 1998, however, impatience was evident on both sides. Both leaders wanted a thaw but there was too much mutual distrust within their “systems”. Even the suggestion of a Delhi-Lahore bus service was entangled in bureaucratic quibbling. It was then, in early winter, that a letter from Pakistan arrived in my mail.

Postmarks showed that the envelope, marked “from the Prime Minister of Pakistan”, had been in transit for several weeks. It also hadn’t travelled well, which was understandable. It had possibly been steamed open and re-sealed by many competing “agencies” which are unlikely to have seen a letter from a prime minister of Pakistan in ordinary mail before. It was harmless: Just a warm, if belated, response to a note from me months earlier asking for an interview.

I called Nawaz Sharif back and asked if I could visit Pakistan for the interview. There was some banter. I said what’s the point of interviews if our prime ministers could not get anything moving? Forget big things, I said, you people can’t even get that bus moving. Nawaz Sharif muttered the usual complaints with hidebound diplomats. I said, still in that light-hearted exchange in Punjabi, why don’t you announce the bus in the interview and invite our prime minister to Pakistan on the first bus?

Nawaz Sharif liked that idea. But he asked what if I invite him and he declines? It will look really bad. I said I will check. Which I did. Vajpayee liked the idea too. Only thing he said, I should see him on my return and not publish it until then.

In the interview at his Lahore home, often interrupted by cricket when Sachin Tendulkar battled back-pain to play his brilliant innings that almost won the Chennai Test from Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif kept his promise. Start the bus, he said, and invited Vajpayee to be on it. He will ensure a welcome, he said, that history will remember. Vajpayee asked me to hold it for a day. He wanted the interview to be published on the day he was landing early morning in Lucknow. He wanted to ensure a reporter asked him a question on Nawaz Sharif’s invitation. Which, he said, he would publicly accept before the MEA came up with its usual doubts.

Also read: My encounters with Vajpayee, a statesman who could smile even in a tough situation

The rest is well-recorded history. The visit happened soon after, to much drama. There were some discordant notes, particularly with Pakistan Army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf refusing to salute him in welcome. Vajpayee walked up the steps of Minar-e-Pakistan to say a stable and prosperous Pakistan was in India’s best interest. History, it seemed, was being made. It was heady to have been a part of it. Somebody today might say that the interview was “fixed”. If so, it was to good purpose. It was also a terrific newsbreak.

The story doesn’t end yet. While the two prime ministers were having their peace fest, unknown to both of them, the Pakistani army was infiltrating miles across a wide frontier in Kargil and digging in. By mid-May, the first clashes took place. On 26 May, India flung in air power. Two MiGs were lost to shoulder-fired missiles on the next day. A third, a lumbering Canberra on photo-reconnaissance, took a missile hit on one of its engines but was fortunately nursed back to base safely. Nobody was prepared for this.

The phone rang in my hotel room in Mumbai early, 6:30 am, and the caller said the prime minister wanted to speak with me. He sounded concerned. “Yeh kya kar raha hai mitr aapka,” (what is this friend of yours doing?) he asked. He said everybody was taken by surprise, how can mere mujahideen have missiles, and all this while, Pakistan’s army chief was in China. So what the hell is going on, can you ask your friend? I left a message at the usual number in Islamabad.

The call came later that night. Nawaz Sharif sounded as perplexed as Vajpayee. “You can tell him I won’t betray him. I was told yesterday there were some routine clashes on the LoC and today they reported ‘air violations’,” he said. I am also surprised, he said, saying he would want to engage with Vajpayee.

Also read: Pakistan’s future boils down to PM Imran Khan’s India policy

Vajpayee and Brajesh Mishra called me on my return to New Delhi. They said “our people” had intercepted some phone conversations between Gen. Musharraf and his deputy, confirming that Kargil was purely a military operation. Would I, therefore, go to Islamabad again on the pretext of an interview and tell Nawaz Sharif about the tapes? By this time, I was chastened. I can’t, and I shouldn’t, I politely told them. The earlier interview was a genuine scoop and the bus ride a collateral benefit. But this was going too far from journalism. They understood. They asked another editor, a former one, to do this. R.K. Mishra, then with the Observer Research Foundation, made several trips to Islamabad. He even delivered to Nawaz Sharif the tapes of those intercepted conversations as evidence. My story, or extra-journalistic adventure, had ended.

Vajpayee led India to victory in Kargil. He turned the betrayal to his advantage and emerged with unhandled stature. Nawaz Sharif, who was forced to sue for peace through US President Bill Clinton, wasn’t so fortunate. This led to a breakdown in his relations with his army, a coup within months, imprisonment and long exile. With this ended the most determined effort by an elected Pakistani leader to take foreign and strategic, especially India policies, from the army. It is unlikely that such an opportunity would arise again. It’s very improbable to see Imran gathering the courage to challenge his army-ISI establishment for real power.

There are many lessons here for Pakistan’s new prime minister. First, trying to make peace with India is risky, and definitely suicidal to do it over the generals’ heads. Second, that no elected prime minister in Pakistan has been allowed by the same Establishment to complete a full term yet. And third, that every elected prime minister has ended up exiled, jailed, killed, or as in the case of Benazir Bhutto, all three.

Also read: Kargil: What kind of a democracy are we that we are shy of facing the truth about our wars?

Imran has taken risks in life: In cricket, relationships, marriage and politics. But the basic power equation in his country hasn’t changed. If anything, it has reversed whatever democratic easing may have taken place in the past decade. If at all he tries to make peace, it will be because his army told him to do so, not in its defiance.

And even if new beginnings were to be made, I will never again be drawn in! It’s tempting, but tricky. Even if it might be a fine story to tell later. There are four reasons I decided to tell it now: Vajpayee’s departure, Nawaz Sharif’s imprisonment, Imran’s swearing-in and, most important, that 20 years have passed since.

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  1. Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist, Barnala(Punjab)

    This article in form of a past disclosure of an episode will serve a dual purpose!
    First of all, it sounds a note of caution for new Pakistan Prime Minister Imran
    Khan to proceed further in this direction of strengthening bilateral Indo-Pak
    ties that the task is indeed Herculean in wake of past experiences!

    Secondly, it may serve as a feed back for Imran how to address this issue exploring
    innovative and new ways and means ! In light of this, he may have smart and more
    sharp tricks up his sleeves ! It can prove to be a learning tip for Imran Khan because
    learning knows no bounds of time, person, place or incident !

    Late Mr.Atal Bihari Vajpayee former Prime Minister during his Lahore Bus Journey
    did assert in Pakistan at that time that” strong Pakistan was in the interest of India”!

    The fact cannot be denied that Imran too is very well aware of the fact how and in which
    way the political-military bondage contours had been affecting the polity in Pakistan for
    almost seven decades !

    Imran should take this episode as an Ayurvedic Medicine which may prove effective or not
    but it will have no harm or any side effect ! Sincere efforts must continue to harmonize the
    bilateral ties between India and Pakistan !

    Who knows which formula may click proving to be fruitful in this direction and at what time?

    Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist
    Pom Anm Nest,Barnala(Punjab)

  2. Did you also offer investment advise?
    CONGRATULATIONS you bought MNS cheap because anyone can assess he and his family are greedy pigs.

  3. Writers to television anchorpersons, journalists to diplomats, artists to sportspersons Indians have developed mastery in stating lies in a most matter of factly manner. To say that India won Kargil, India carried out surgical strikes inside Azad Kashmir and Pakistani backed terrorists attacked Bombay Hotel in 2008 are all concocted tails of deceit meant to condition opinion in India’s favour to conceal Indian society’s countless ills and the atrocities it commits on its own minorities and the Kashmiris

  4. Shekhar sir, why do you have to reduce everything to personal memorabilia? This tendency reduces your articles, in your own flowery language, from ‘National Interest’ to an extra’s version of a cricket match.

    Why not discuss the unlikelyhood of any breakthrough from the Indian side either? That our current government is too busy trying its polarization experiment to win another election, and that greater integration with all our neighbors may make good sense for India but not its ‘winning focussed’ government?

  5. Fascinating. Peace with India, it seems, is too important to be left to the Prime Minister. If that is the disposition of real power in Pakistan, it would be wise for PM Imran Khan to focus on things where his writ runs, starting with the economy, which needs immediate fixing.

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