Kuldip Nayar and the bus ride with Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee waves from the maiden Delhi-Lahore bus service on his arrival at Lahore to attend a summit. (PTI File Photo)

Bus Diplomacy

ON 20 FEBRUARY 1999, I WAS SITTING BEHIND PRIME MINISTER Atal Bihari Vajpayee on the bus going to Lahore, at the invitation of Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. En route, before reaching the Wagah border, Vajpayee beckoned to me and informed me that he had received news about the killing of some 26 Hindus by militants in the Jammu division.

He was anguished by the latest killings and wondered whether there was any use in further talks. I tried to reassure him by saying that the militants were so desperate to stall the talks

with Nawaz Sharif that they were killing only to provoke the Hindus. He saw my point but was not sure how Indian opinion would react to his visiting Pakistan despite the killings.

A worried Vajpayee entered Pakistan amid festivities on both sides of the border. The welcome ceremony was short and simple. The three service chiefs of Pakistan were present but did not salute Vajpayee. Vajpayee flew with Nawaz Sharif to Lahore in a helicopter while we travelled on in the same Bus.

The drive reminded me of the Partition – of the time when I had walked from my hometown, Sialkot city, to Lahore.

Now I was in a vehicle covering the same road between Amritsar and Lahore. But this time there were no dead bodies, burnt vehicles or scattered luggage. Men and women, standing

in their fields or beside their houses, waved to us vigorously. We waved back. There was hardly any difference between this countryside and the one which we had left behind in India.

In Lahore, we were put up in a 5-star hotel. After changing hurriedly, we reached the governor’s house where Vajpayee was staying, to accompany him to the banquet at the Qila (Fort). It was a long wait of more than two hours and nobody told us the reason for the delay. Ultimately, Vajpayee, along with his secretary and others, emerged from the building. Only then did we learn that the road to the Fort had been, quite literally, taken over by the Jamaat-e-Islami. Its members and supporters had turned back all vehicles and had even stoned some diplomats’ cars.

As we drove down the road to the Fort we could see piles of bricks stacked on both sides. Shabaz Sharif, chief minister of Pakistan’s Punjab, told me that the Jamaat had promised to protest only for a few minutes but it had played false. I imagined that an agreement had probably been the only way out because the Jamaat had a strong presence in Lahore.

Vajpayee read out his banquet speech in English. It was flat. Apparently, it had been pieced together by some bureaucrats. These were the same bureaucrats who had at one time decided that the leaders of different political parties would accompany Vajpayee to Lahore. When I learned about this, I had prevailed upon Vajpayee’s principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, and convinced him that the prime minister would be more appreciated if he were accompanied by eminent artists, writers and scientists; this way Pakistan would get the message that Vajpayee had the backing of the intelligentsia.

Vajpayee’s speech was as much a disaster as a delegation of politicians would have been. Even if there was a message, it was lost in the involved sentences and familiar clichés. The only relief was provided by the profusely decorated Fort and the shaded lights silhouetting the large trees and lighting up the grassy grounds.

The following morning, I met Vajpayee and told him that his speech at the civic reception later in the day should be in his own words, drawn both from Urdu and Hindi. He agreed, and his words went down so well that even today people recall his speech with nostalgia. He told the audience that Pakistan did not need anyone’s recognition because it had its own identity and recognition. Earlier, he had written in the visitors’ book at Minar-e-Pakistan, (where the Pakistan Resolution was passed) that the integrity and prosperity of India depended upon the integrity and prosperity of Pakistan.

While the two prime ministers were busy talking, the rest of the delegation was attending a lunch hosted by Sahebzada Yakub Khan, once Pakistan’s foreign minister. Both of us sat at the same table. The conversation was very informative. He asked the person sitting next to me to which place he belonged. He replied that he was from the North-West Frontier Province. Sahebzada’s next question was: How did he see Kashmir? He replied: ‘A distant land which does not interest me in one way or the other.’ A similar response came from two other persons sitting at the table. One of them was from Sind and the other from Baluchistan. Sahibzada then turned towards me and said: ‘This was your problem; of the Punjabis on both sides. You should settle it.’

A friend of mine, Mushahid Hussain, former information minister in the Nawaz Sharif Cabinet, was Vajpayee’s minister in- waiting. He told me later that the Lahore Declaration which Nawaz Sharif and Vajpayee had signed was the best thing that could happen to the two countries. There was also a road map for the settlement of Kashmir as well as a time frame. He did not give me any details, although he, a hardliner, was positive about the Declaration.

Little did I know at that time that the Kargil operation had almost started. Nawaz Sharif – whom I checked with in Jeddah where he was living after General Pervez Musharraf had banished him after the coup – said that he did not know anything about Kargil until Vajpayee informed him about the intrusion on the hotline. However, General Pervez Musharraf said in a later interview that ‘everybody was on board’.

I suspect Nawaz Sharif had some prior information about the operation, in much the same way that General Ayub Khan knew about the infiltration which Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had arranged in 1965, leading to a war between India and Pakistan.

At our meeting in Jeddah, Nawaz Sharif told me that he had paid the price for trying to negotiate peace with India; an issue to which, he said, the military had been opposed. This might well be true. For any kind of settlement on Kashmir, the Pakistanis say without hesitation that the military would have to be involved; they would not agree to any arrangement which meant the transfer of power from it to the civil.

When I met Vajpayee after the coup in Pakistan, he said ‘He (Nawaz Sharif) sacrificed himself for us.’ Regarding the settlement on Kashmir, Vajpayee said, ‘We were almost there.’ He was referring to the behind-the-scene talks between former newspaperman R.K. Mishra and Niaz Naik, the former foreign secretary of Pakistan. I failed to scoop on what the agreement was which made Vajpayee say, ‘We were almost there.’

R.K. Mishra has not opened his mouth. Niaz Naik has said in subsequent press interviews that the settlement still had a lot to cover. So, exactly what direction the talk between Mishra and Niaz took, for Vajpayee to remark ‘we were almost there’, is not known yet.

Reproduced in arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers India Private Limited from the book Scoop authored by Kuldip Nayar and first published by them © Kuldip Nayar, 2006. All rights reserved. Unauthorized copying is strictly prohibited.

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Kuldip Nayar and the bus ride with Atal Bihari Vajpayee

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