I can never forget 11 May 1998. On that fateful day, a few months into my posting in Tokyo, I was hosting a dinner at my residence, when the phone rang. The call was for Dr Jaishankar (then Deputy Chief of Mission, and later India’s Foreign Secretary). ‘We have done it’, he said, putting down the receiver.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s decision to go nuclear, is arguably the most transformative event in independent India’s history.
It was a bold, difficult and a highly risky manoeuvre, which ended decades of ambivalence, and placed the country squarely in the big league.
India had arrived, albeit not without the accompanying complications of childbirth.
Aftershocks of the Nuclear Test
Japan went ballistic as news of India’s nuclear tests broke out, and with some justification, being the only country in the world to have suffered the horrors of radioactive fallout. Then Prime Minister Hashimoto went into an over-drive. He called Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif urging him not to follow suit, brandished inducements and even offered to take the Kashmir issue to the UN Security Council. President Clinton was livid and so was the western world.
A series of economic and technological sanctions were imposed on India, aid was cut-off and access to IFI (International Financial Institution) funds suspended.
The US and some other nations recalled their ambassadors. Demands were made on India to immediately sign the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty).
Prime Minister Vajpayee and his core team remained unfazed. They weathered the storm stoically through a slew of deft economic and political measures. India announced a voluntary moratorium on further tests and pledged ‘No first use’ of nuclear weapons, among other steps. Strategic dialogues were initiated with France (led by National Security Adviser Brijesh Mishra) and the US (led by External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh). Resurgent India Bonds (RIBs) were launched to garner USD 2 billion, which mobilised more than USD 4 billion within months. The rest, as they say, is history.
The five day-five city visit to India (including the iconic Taj Mahal) by President Clinton (and his daughter Chelsea) in March 2000, within two years of Pokhran nuclear tests, was a sterling testimonial to Vajpayee’s diplomatic skills and success, if one was at all needed.
Clinton followed it with a reluctant five-hour visit to Pakistan. De-hyphenation of India and Pakistan was complete!
Vajpayee – The Charmer
Vajpayee (ABV) was a man of many parts. Besides being a nationalist, visionary and a decisive leader, he was also a humanist, poet and a foodie. A mesmerising orator during his heydays, he was also blessed with a great sense of humour. Upon becoming the Foreign Minister in 1977, he was accosted by the media – ‘Mr Minister, while in Opposition, you said this, this and this. What do you say now?’
‘I am no longer in Opposition,’ was Vajpayee’s retort.
Ambassador Mohan Kumar, a batchmate, fondly narrates an anecdote from his days as a Third Secretary in Geneva in 1983. He was asked to fetch a Member of Parliament (MP) from the airport, and opted to drive down in his personal car. On the way back, they got talking, and upon realizing that he was a young IFS officer, the MP asked him to stop the car at once. Perplexed, he did exactly that.
The dignitary promptly switched to the front seat of the car, apologising to Mohan for not knowing that he was an Officer (he never said that he had mistook him for a chauffeur).
They continued to chat as if they had known each other forever. ‘Such class and consideration! I agree they do not make them like that anymore’ wistfully remarks Mohan. As you must have guessed, the MP was none other than Mr Vajpayee.
Popular in Pakistan
AB Vajpayee was a statesman who was capable of looking at the big picture, transcending short-term considerations, setbacks and personal disappointments.
Vajpayee harboured a life-long dream to normalise relations with Pakistan, despite the latter’s treachery and compulsive hostility.
To foster better ties, the then Prime Minister Vajpayee and his delegation, undertook the famous bus ‘yatra’ to Lahore on its inaugural run on 20 February 1999. He was received at the Wagah border by Prime Minister Sharif. He interalia paid respects at the historical Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, built to honour a 1940 resolution that led to the creation of Pakistan, which was rich in symbolism.
In the Lahore Declaration signed the next day, the two leaders agreed to ‘intensify their efforts to resolve all issues, including the issue of Jammu and Kashmir’.
Overwhelmed by the bonhomie Sharif could not help remarking – ‘Vajpayee sahab ab toh Pakistan mein bhi election jeet sakte hain.’ (Vajpayee Sahib can now win elections even in Pakistan.)’
But that was not to be. As is usual with India-Pakistan engagement, the flattery was to deceive. Unknown to Vajpayee (perhaps even to Sharif), around the same time, Army Chief Pervez Musharraf was busy surreptitiously inserting heavily-armed insurgents (mostly Pakistani military regulars in disguise) inside Indian territory, to wrest control of the strategically important Kargil.
Braving Treachery with Patience & Perseverance
Conflict broke out in early May 1999, when Pakistani perfidy was discovered. Conscious of the desirability of containing the hostilities, the Indian forces launched a valiant and concerted assault, but from its side of the LoC (Line of Control). India maintained the sanctity of LoC, dislodged the Pakistanis, but paid a heavy price in terms of casualties.
The global stock of Vajpayee and India rose admirably. Pakistan stood exposed, once again.
Lesser men would have given up on Pakistan, but not Vajpayee. Such was his faith in, and desire for peace. In his musings from Kumarakom on 1 Jan 2001, he wrote inter alia – ‘India is willing and ready to seek a lasting solution to the Kashmir problem. Towards this end, we are prepared to recommence talks with Pakistan at any level, including the highest... I am sad to note, however, that Pakistan is not doing enough to rein in terrorist organisations based on its soil that are continuing their killing spree... In our search for a lasting solution... we shall not traverse solely on the beaten track of the past. Rather, we shall be bold and innovative designers of a future architecture of peace and prosperity for the entire South Asian region’.
By this time, I was posted in Islamabad as Counsellor (Political). Soon, hectic preparations for the bilateral Agra Summit were underway, which was held from 14 to 16 July 2001. By then, Musharraf had deposed Sharif after Kargil, and become the President of Pakistan, and Vajpayee’s interlocutor. As the Army, not the civilian government, wields de facto power in Pakistan and is the real arbiter of relations with India, there were some expectations of a breakthrough. However, Musharraf’s habitual grandstanding and overreach led to a stalemate at the summit.
A little later in 2001r, on 11 September, Al-Qaida terrorists blew-up the twin towers in New York. On 13 December, Pakistani terrorists owing allegiance to Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, perpetrated an audacious attack on the Indian Parliament. Bilateral relations slumped to another low. The danger of a full-scale conflict loomed large. The size of our mission in Islamabad was halved. The High Commissioner and I, among others, were pulled out in a matter of days.
Yet, ABV persevered, never giving up hope. In January 2002, he reaffirmed India's readiness "to walk more than half the distance" in resolving all contentious issues, including Kashmir, as quoted by C Raja Mohan in The Hindu. In January 2004, he even travelled back to Pakistan (Islamabad) to attend the 12th SAARC Summit. Though he lost the 2014 elections, his legacy endured.
As PM Modi has ruefully noted, Mr Vajpayee’s departure has left a great void behind.
Yet, he has also left behind a confident and aspirational India, by firmly charting her on the course of peace, progress, prosperity and security, during his many years of stewardship.
(This article has been republished to mark Atal Bihar Vajpayee’s 95th birth anniversary. It was originally published on 17 August 2018.)
(The writer is a former High Commissioner to Canada, Ambassador to South Korea and Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached at @AmbVPrakash. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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