Vajpayee made 3 landmark moves to make peace with Pakistan, each time going out on a limb, in spite of grave provocations.
After trying a hybrid war-and-peace approach through an unlikely alliance of antagonists, the Modi government is now shifting to a purely combative tack. Had he been in better health instead of being silenced by fate and confined to the intensive care unit (ICU) at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), what would Atal Bihari Vajpayee have thought of it?
Let us try to understand Vajpayee’s approach through his 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 — though by the Pakistanis, and not his own partymen, as Manmohan Singh subsequently was over Sharm el-Sheikh. Despite successive letdowns, however, the public opinion supported Vajpayee’s initiatives each time.
The bus to Lahore and road to Agra
Vajpayee’s first move came with the bus ride to Lahore in 1999. It was almost two decades ago, and I will, in the course of time (not now), reveal the inside story of that decision, which surprised the foreign ministries on both sides. But during that period, while he reached out for peace, there was no let-up in attacks in the Valley. In fact, a major massacre took place while Vajpayee was in Lahore.
Yet he visited Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore 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. Vajpayee didn’t lose his conviction for peace even after the politically embarrassing and near-fatal discovery that Musharraf’s infiltrators were busy occupying Kargil exactly when he was making peace in Lahore.
That is because finding peace with Pakistan — and in Kashmir — was never a tactical, short-term ploy in his mind. It was a ‘Great Big idea’. In fact, the central ‘Great Big Idea’ of his 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 poignantly in a conversation in the first week of July 2001. 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 the IC-814 hijack. And even after Vajpayee first invited him from his annual summer retreat in Manali in the last week of May 2001, Musharraf gave 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 from Musharraf, silly pre-conditions, a response so immature that even an eternal pacifist like Inder Kumar Gujral said Musharraf was behaving as if he thought he was coming to a defeated nation?
“Dekhiye,” he said, “If leaders of India and Pakistan keep waiting for the ideal moment to make peace, they may never get a chance.”
I persisted: “Why now? Was it a brainwave, some sort of an epiphany, 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.
“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, of 8 Sikh Regiment seconded to the 6th battalion of Rashtriya Rifles, was killed in Kupwara, fighting the Lashkar-e-Taiba on 25 June, 2001, 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,” Vajpayee said, “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 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.”
A long pause again, and he picked up the thread: “For how long must this go on, I thought. 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 generations 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 later that year (13 December). Just two weeks after that attack, as our forces were going through an unprecedented mobilisation, I had another conversation with him that I treasure, one that I reported several years earlier too.
A bowl of soup and mobilisation for war
He gave me an audience that sunny, late December afternoon in his lawn, 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 go into a silence that only you would break with your next question.
So I told him, deliberately cheekily, I had merely come to ask him if it was OK for me to go away with my family on a long-planned vacation to Kerala. Because, if a war started meanwhile, and the 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 the time to go on 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, the armed forces are so angry,” he said. “Kintu ek samasya hai (there is one problem). You can decide when you start a war. But once started, when it will end, how it will end, nobody knows. It isn’t in your hands. 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 an almost 16-month standoff 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. It yielded the ‘Islamabad Declaration’ after a summit with Musharraf in January 2004. It gave us a decade of peace on the Line of Control.
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 in Srinagar that even took Brajesh Mishra by total surprise. Vajpayee admitted it was a call so sudden, he subsequently himself felt surprised that he made it at the spur of the 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, without thinking, or consulting anybody.” He looked those Kashmiris in the eye and offered to make peace again.
Vajpayee had brilliant political instinct and, what a senior American diplomat once described to me as, “this magisterial control over public opinion”. “One day he says he is going to war, and all of India follows him. The next day he says he is making peace, and you still follow him,” the former US ambassador to India said.
Later, when Manmohan Singh stuck his neck out at Sharm el-Sheikh, he invoked the spirit of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the statesman. He was let down by his own rebellious partymen. An opportunity for the Congress to build on a persistent Vajpayee peace initiative was lost.
If the Congress hadn’t panicked, and let Manmohan Singh run after taking the baton from Vajpayee, the subcontinent could have built more durable peace. And probably this new “muscular” phase would not have come to pass.
This should answer the question we raised in the beginning: Vajpayee would be greatly disappointed with this unfortunate turn in Kashmir.