India Today - - THE LEGACY OF VAJPAYEE - By Rakesh Sood

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



Fe­bru­ary 1999 Va­j­payee and Jaswant Singh at the Mi­nar-ePak­istan in La­hore

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