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A lesson from the Vajpayee school of large-hearted leadership

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Vajpayee was a remarkable leader, who despite Kargil, made three peace bids with Pakistan.

The downturn in the political stature and authority of Dr Manmohan Singh began with the joint declaration he signed with his Pakistani counterpart in Sharm-el-Shaikh. It was no surprise that he invoked the Vajpayee spirit to seek both inspiration and validation for his own move.

Fascinating because Vajpayee made three landmark moves to make peace with Pakistan, each time going out on a limb, in spite of grave provocations. Each time he was let down — by the Pakistanis. And yet, each time public opinion supported him. Even Jairam Ramesh said the strongest factors still working for the incumbent in the 2004 campaign were highway building, and peace with Pakistan.

Vajpayee’s first move came with the bus ride to Lahore. It was 18 years ago, but not enough time has still passed for me to be able to recount the inside story of that move — which surprised the foreign ministries on both sides, or to disclose any conversations. But during that period there was no let-up in attacks in the Valley; in fact a major massacre took place even when Vajpayee was in Lahore.

Also read: Vajpayee was popular even among citizens who didn’t vote for him, writes his PMO aide

Yet he visited Minar-e-Pakistan and declared that a stable and prosperous Pakistan was entirely in India’s interest. The significance of a BJP prime minister making that statement was not lost on anybody in Pakistan. It was as historic as Advani’s subsequent rationalisation of Jinnah as a modern leader — and Vajpayee was never to go back on it even after the embarrassing, and politically near-fatal discovery that Musharraf’s infiltrators were occupying Kargil exactly when he was making peace in Lahore.

That is because finding peace with Pakistan was never a tactical, short-term ploy in his mind. It was a Great, Big Idea. In fact, the Great Big Idea of his entirely statesmanly mind. And when he lost power in May 2004, his biggest regret was that he would not be able to take it to its logical conclusion.

He explained his beliefs so poignantly in a conversation in the first week of July 2001, one that I can recount. I had asked him for time to try to understand the reason why he had made an entirely unexpected and unexplained move to invite Musharraf for the summit in Agra. This was when Musharraf’s legitimacy was in doubt. Insurgency in Kashmir was at its very worst and Indian public opinion was still smarting from the humiliation of IC-814’s hijack to Kandahar. And even after Vajpayee first invited him from his annual summer retreat in the hills in the last week of May, Musharraf had given him enough provocation to go slow, if not cancel altogether.

Was this really such a good time to invite Musharraf for a summit, I asked him, and then to persist —despite so many provocations, silly pre-conditions, a response so immature that even an eternal pacifist like Inder Gujral said Musharraf was behaving as if he thought he was coming to a defeated nation?

“Dekhiye,” Vajpayee said, if leaders of India and Pakistan keep waiting for the ideal moment to try to make peace, they may never get a chance.”

But I persisted: why now, was it a brain-wave, some sort of an inspiration, international pressure, why put up with so many demands from Musharraf even while setting up the summit?

There was a long, long silence which was not unusual of Vajpayee and which meant one of two things. Either he did not want to answer, or he was thinking. I had learnt the trick was not to interrupt his silence. I was rewarded.

Also read: Modi speaks of the world as one family, Vajpayee showed us what it truly meant

“Quite honestly,” he said, “I have had some second thoughts…But, dekhiye, there is a Saxena family we vaguely know in Lucknow. Their son, a major, died fighting in Kashmir (Major Anshoo Saxena, our defence editor Manu Pubby tells me, of 8 Sikh Regiment seconded to the 6th battalion of Rashtriya Rifles, killed in Kupwara fighting Lashkar-e-Taiba on 25 June and decorated with the Sena Medal posthumously) and, since Lucknow is my constituency, I called his father to commiserate with him.

“And you know what, his father wasn’t crying or distraught. He was stoic (thande dimaag se bole rahe the) and resolute. He said, why one son, I would sacrifice any number of sons for my country. And then I thought, his grief is still fresh. In a few days, he and his family will feel the absence of his son, the enormity of their loss.

They will not complain, because that is just how patriotic our ordinary people are. But for how long must this go on? How many families have been similarly subjected to grief on both sides in so many decades? How many more generations will have to live with this? So I thought, forget all the irritations, leaders of my generation owe it to our future to honestly settle this once and for all.”

His disappointment with Musharraf at Agra was grave. He was as surprised by Musharraf’s impetuosity and immaturity as Musharraf, in turn, was by his reserve. And then, he was furious when his Parliament was attacked. Just two weeks after that attack, as our forces were going through an unprecedented mobilisation, I had another conversation with him that I treasure, and that I can now report.

He gave me an audience that sunny, late December afternoon, in his garden, along with a bowl of scalding, salt-laden vegetable soup. By now, I knew that what worked with him was an informal, even light-hearted approach, rather than a straight question which often made him just go into a silence that only you would break with your next question. So I told him, I had merely come to ask him if it was OK for me to carry on with my family on a long-planned vacation in Kerala, because if a war started meanwhile and airspace was closed, did I really want to get trapped so far away from my newsroom?

“Yeh bhi koi chhutti pe jaane ka samay hai (is this a time to go on a vacation)?” he asked.

So is the prospect of war a real one, I asked.

He again went into a long, long silence. And I was glad I waited him out on this one.

“Everybody wants to go to war,” he said. “The armed forces are so angry. But ek samasya hai (there is a problem). You can decide when to start a war. But once started, when it will end, how it will end, nobody knows. That is a call leaders have to take,” he said, focusing entirely on his soup.

Once again it was a statesman speaking rather than an angry Indian. After almost 16 months of stand-off on the borders and coercive diplomacy when, as disclosed by Brajesh Mishra in an interview with me on NDTV’s ‘Walk the Talk’, an all-out war nearly broke out on two occasions, Vajpayee again made a dramatic “turnaround”. Addressing a crowd in April 2003 in Srinagar, he made yet another unilateral peace offer, to his own Kashmiris as well as Pakistan, and it yielded the Islamabad Declaration after a summit with Musharraf in January 2004.

I again asked him how he justified this about-turn. I knew he had not discussed this even with his core cabinet colleagues. It was an instinctive, political call that even took Brajesh Mishra by surprise. Vajpayee admitted it was a call so sudden, he himself subsequently felt surprised he made it at the spur of a moment. And what was that moment?

He said as he spoke at the Srinagar rally he looked into the eyes of the Kashmiris in his audience. “None of them looked like they wanted to fight with us. All of them looked like they wanted peace, a return to normalcy, so I made one more move. Again, without thinking, or consulting.”

That is a lesson from the Vajpayee school of instinctive and large-hearted leadership we must remember today.

This article was originally published on 25 December, 2017.

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  1. It is an irony that such a visionary ,large hearted man etc was hounded and berated by the same political parties and media who are now finding virtues in him,what to say of Indian people who did not give him second term but preferred his opposition.

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

    Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a great icon “with a persona indeed sublime and magnificent” !
    Many in one, his personality was matchless in many respects!
    Mr. Vajpayee can never be forgotten by the world because-
    He was a statesman, a poet, a true nationalist, an orator par excellence, an intellectual full of
    lively wit, humility and humanity in abundance !


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

  3. The man who rules a country as vast and diverse and complex as India must have a large heart. That is non negotiable. If he has a poet’s eloquence and some very human frailties, that is an added bonus.

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