Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A blend of strength and stratagem

His government was accused of sleeping for almost a year over intelligence reports about Pakistan army’s preparations for what later turned into a bloody war in Kargil and nearby areas across the Line of Control – a conflict, which cost the Indian Army the lives of more than 500 soldiers.
 
His much-hyped summit with President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan in Agra in 2001 ended in a spectacular failure.
 
Yet Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure as prime minister will always be remembered for his efforts to bring about a thaw in India’s relations with Pakistan. It was during his tenure that the back-channel negotiators of India and Pakistan first mooted what till today remained the most workable formula to resolve the row over Kashmir.
 
The formula had its roots in the “Lahore Declaration”, which Vajpayee made jointly with Prime Minister M Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan on February 21, 1999, a day after his historic bus ride from New Delhi to the neighbouring country. It, however, could not make progress, as the Indian Army had to respond to Pakistan army’s aggression along the LoC. 
The Kargil War in May-July 1999 took the relations between the two neighbouring countries back to square one. It returned to the table only when Vajpayee met Musharraf on the sideline of the SAARC summit in Islamabad in January 2004 – almost three years after the July 2001 Agra Summit between the two leaders failed.
 
The formula was never made public officially, but Musharraf later spelt out its contours in an interview in August 2006. It was based on the  demilitarisation or phased withdrawal of troops by India and Pakistan from both sides of the LoC in Kashmir, making borders irrelevant instead of redrawing it and allowing trade, commerce and free movement of people of Kashmir across the border, more autonomy for Kashmir and constitution of a joint body with representatives of India and Pakistan to oversee certain affairs related to Kashmir.
 
Letter to Manmohan
 
The grapevine in New Delhi is that Vajpayee left a letter for his successor Manmohan Singh on his desk when he left the office in May 2004 and the letter did mention the formula he and Musharraf had mooted to end the dispute over Kashmir. Singh did take it forward, but November 26-28, 2008, terror attacks in Mumbai again derailed the process.

Musharraf did make it a point to meet Vajpayee when he came to New Delhi in April 2005 to meet his new counterpart Singh. Sharif also drove to Vajpayee’s residence in Krishna Menon Marg in New Delhi when he came to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2014 – ostensibly to recognise the efforts made by his former counterpart to end the festering acrimony between India and Pakistan, sometimes even at the cost of annoying the hawks within his BJP. 
 
Long before prime ministership
 
Vajpayee, in fact, made his first contribution to efforts to make peace between India and Pakistan long before he took the office of the prime minister. He visited Islamabad in February 1977 as foreign minister of the Janata Party government led by prime minister Morarji Desai. 

It was during his visit that India and Pakistan had agreed on allowing each other's media organisations to station correspondents in each other's capitals, in addition to liberalising visa regime, taking measures for expanding trade and frequent exchange of visits. 

As a Bharatiya Jan Sangh leader, Vajpayee had earlier criticised the Shimla Agreement, which prime minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistan president Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, had signed on July 2, 1972. But during his February 1977 visit to Islamabad as foreign minister, Vajpayee maintained that India would be ready for talks with Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir within the framework of the Shimla Agreement once the bilateral ties would be normalised. 

After his return to New Delhi, when journalists asked him about the change in his view on Shimla Agreement, Vajpayee told them smilingly that he was trying to forget his past and that they should also do the same. 
 
New Delhi still remains firm on its stand that any discussion with Islamabad on the issue of Kashmir should be within the framework of the Shimla Agreement inked by Indira Gandhi and Bhutto in 1972 and the Lahore Declaration signed by Vajpayee and Sharif in 1999. India maintains that the Shimla Agreement had left no scope for any third party to get involved in the process to resolve the disputes between the two nations and it had again been reaffirmed by the Lahore Declaration. 
 
Vajpayee extended his strong support to Indira Gandhi during the India-Pakistan war in 1971 which led to the birth of Bangladesh. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government in Dhaka in 2015 honoured him with “Foreign Friend of Bangladesh” award and acknowledged his support to Bangladesh's war of liberation from Pakistan. 
 
With China, Russia and the US 
 
Vajpayee's tenure as prime minister also saw two significant breakthroughs in India's complex relations with China. It was during his visit to Beijing in June 2003 that Vajpayee and Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed on a process, which finally culminated with China giving up its claim on Sikkim and acknowledging it as a part of India. 

They also agreed to start a mechanism led by Special Representatives of both the governments to explore ways to resolve the vexed Sino-India boundary dispute. It continues to be the official forum for both sides to find solutions to the boundary dispute, with Modi's National Security Adviser Ajit Doval being the current Special Representative of New Delhi. Doval and his counterpart Yang Jiechi, the then State Councilor of China, held the last round of talks in New Delhi in December 2017. 
 
Vajpayee's term in the office of the prime minister also saw India and Russia elevating their time-tested relations to a strategic partnership. He and Russian President Vladimir Putin held the first annual summit in New Delhi in October 2000. Putin is set to visit New Delhi later this year to meet Modi for the 18th summit. 
 
Though the May 1998 nuclear test in Pokhran prompted the US to impose sanctions on India, the strains in the relations were eased by Bill Clinton's visit to New Delhi in March 2000 and Vajpayee's to Washington in September the same year. It was during his tenure as prime minister that New Delhi had first started talks with the George Bush Administration, exploring the possibility of an India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement, which finally turned into reality in October 2008. 

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Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A blend of strength and stratagem

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