THE BUS YATRA
to Lahore was instrumental in easing Indo-Pak ties after the two countries had conducted nuclear tests just a few months earlier. When the Kargil incursions took place two months later, the world saw Vajpayee as the peacemaker and Pakistan as the aggressor
One of the defining moments of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure was his Lahore bus yatra in February 1999. It was a decision that had the potential to fundamentally alter relations between India and Pakistan and, ever the consummate politician, Vajpayee was astute enough to see it and bold enough to convince the naysayers.
As the joint secretary dealing with disarmament and international security affairs in the Union ministry for external affairs, I had been involved with all the rounds of foreign secretary-level talks that had taken place, somewhat intermittently, since 1990. The current format of the Composite Dialogue, agreed upon during Prime Minister I.K. Gujral’s tenure in 1997, had been interrupted by the nuclear tests in 1998.
After the tests and the ensuing rhetoric, Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif had met in New York in September 1998, on the margins of the UN General Assembly session. Among the decisions taken was starting a bus service between Delhi and Lahore. I recall mentioning to my colleague and friend Vivek Katju, a joint secretary handling Pakistan, that this was a strange outcome for a first summit meeting between two countries that had months earlier undertaken nuclear tests and declared themselves nuclear weapon states. Vivek sagely assured me that there was never a dearth of surprises in India-Pakistan relations.
A couple of months passed without much progress on the Delhi-Lahore bus front. Security agencies on both sides had raised concerns, prolonging the discussions. In early January, Sharif called Vajpayee and shared his concern that the September announcement about the Delhi-Lahore bus had still not materialised. Vajpayee assured him that he would look into it and principal secretary Brajesh Mishra was asked to take charge of the interagency process. After a few meetings, outstanding issues were ironed out and the Pakistani side was informed
that we would be ready to start the service in February.
At this stage, there were no plans for a bilateral summit. Vajpayee was expected to flag off the inaugural run in Delhi, and Sharif presumably would have done the honours in Lahore. Since Vajpayee was planning to go to Amritsar in mid-February on a domestic tour, it was suggested that perhaps he could flag off the bus from there. Often described as twin cities in undivided Punjab, Amritsar and Lahore are just 40 kilometres apart, but 1947 had snapped the links. Symbolically, flagging off the bus in Amritsar was tantamount to opening the Wagah-Attari gates, much more symbolic than inaugurating it from Delhi.
Events now took an unexpected turn. Closer to Republic Day, Sharif had another telephone conversation with Vajpayee. He thanked him for accelerating the bus project and asked him if it was true that he was planning to flag off the bus in Amritsar. When Vajpayee confirmed it, he responded, “You are returning after coming to my doorstep. This is not done in our culture. You must do me the honour of entering my home. I will receive you in Lahore.” Vajpayee thanked him and promised to revert. The issue was urgent as we were concerned about a leak regarding the phone invitation.
Consultations began with senior cabinet colleagues. Opinion was divided. Some felt that more time was needed before a second summit to ensure adequate preparation. Others felt that it would convey a positive message in the region and to other major powers. Both India and Pakistan were under sanctions, with many in the western strategic community warning about South Asia as the most dangerous nuclear flashpoint. In our strategic dialogues with the US and France, we were assiduously promoting the idea of India as a restrained and responsible nuclear weapon state, and a successful visit would feed this narrative.
It was clear that this was a political call and, finally, Vajpayee decided to accept the invitation. The dates of February 20-21 were worked out and the preparations soon began to look like an Indian baraat. Among the invitees to travel on the bus were Dev Anand, Kapil Dev, Kuldeep Nayar, Javed Akhtar, Satish Gujral, Shatrughan Sinha and Mallika Sarabhai.
In a meeting with Brajesh Mishra in late January, I asked him about the kind of outcome we were expecting from the Lahore talks. A joint statement was a given but I asked whether we should aim for something more. He saw the significance and I drafted a paper on Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs). These had been part of the agenda of bilateral talks since 1990, but the key difference now was that these CBMs would be between two nuclear weapon states. The paper was shared with the Pakistani side, which responded positively.
In the first week of February, Vivek and I went to Lahore to hammer out the details with our Pakistani counterparts, Zamir Akram, who had served in Delhi in the early 1990s and was the director general dealing with India, and Salman Bashir, director general for UN matters who subsequently served in Delhi as high commissioner. This became the MoU that was signed on February 21 by the two foreign secretaries, K. Raghunath and Shamshad Ahmed. It was soon clear that the MoU was too technical. Then germinated the idea of a short Lahore Declaration which would be a political document that the two prime ministers could sign. Vivek took the lead on it and, pretty soon, most of the drafting had been concluded. The two documents provided a substantive heft to the visit.
However, the two abiding memories of the visit belong to Vajpayee. His decision to visit Minar-e-Pakistan and declare that a stable and prosperous Pakistan was in India’s interest was an act of political courage and vision. The second memory is his address at the civic reception held at the Governor’s House. He spoke without a text, and when he concluded by reciting the lines from his poem ‘Jung na hone denge’, there was not a single dry eye in the audience. Sharif wisely refrained from a long response, merely telling him that Vajpayee could now well win an election in Pakistan too.
The visit to Lahore came about through a series of coincidences, but it is the visionary politician in Vajpayee who turned it into an unforgettable legacy.
Rakesh Sood is a former diplomat and currently Distinguished Professor at the Observer Research Foundation
WHEN THE IDEA OF THE DELHI-LAHORE BUS SERVICE WAS FIRST MOOTED, THERE WAS NO PROPOSAL FOR A BILATERAL VISIT
February 1999 Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh at the Minar-ePakistan in Lahore