Vajpayee Was Kashmir’s Favourite Prime Minister, by Far

For Kashmiris by and large, Mr Vajpayee is the most liked and respected leader of India. Such was the extraordinary goodwill he earned in the troubled state during his six years as Prime Minister, that social media was full of tributes from a range of Kashmiris as the news of his death spread on Thursday, 16 August.

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That was no small achievement.

For, when he first became the Prime Minister, Kashmir had been abuzz with horror stories of what might ensue, now that a leader from the RSS was at the helm of India.

Especially in the few weeks after the nuclear tests that followed, soon after Mr Vajpayee took over in 1998, there was fearful street-corner talk of mass killings and ruthless treatment. But, through arduous and sincere efforts were made to make peace, and to reach out to all sections of Kashmiris, Mr Vajpayee turned public opinion around to an extent that had been unimaginable in those early weeks.

Such was the impact that, over the past few years, references to `Vajpayeeji ki policy’ have become short-hand in both Srinagar and New Delhi, for an open-minded and peaceable approach to the Kashmir issue.

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Vajpayee’s Inclusiveness

The striking fact is that this image of inclusiveness was not limited to the corridors of power. It resulted in such a huge change on the ground that it seems unbelievable now that stones and militant guns have become so commonplace in Kashmir, just one-and-a-half decades later.

Around 2004-05, several young Kashmiris would say they felt proud to call themselves Indian.

This was a sea-change from what has generally been the norm over the past several decades. There were instances when siblings and relatives, sitting in front of a television in their homes to watch a match between India and Pakistan, would squabble over which side they supported. Some would vociferously support the Indian side.

Relations With Pakistan

It is easy to forget how tough it was for Vajpayee, the statesman, to achieve that turnaround. He walked a tortuous road strewn with thorns, and did so tirelessly. Vajpayee had unparalleled dedication to a vision of peace and inclusive unity.

In fact, Pakistan stepped up the terror offensive on the ground in Kashmir to unprecedented levels between 1999 and 2001, sensing that the ground was being eroded under their feet.

The Pakistan Army kept rebuffing him—on the heights of Kargil, at the Agra Summit, and with a series of suicide attacks—but finally came around to his peace-making efforts in 2003.

It was from Srinagar that Mr Vajpayee chose to suddenly renew his invitation to Pakistan to engage in dialogue in March 2003.

That outreach took everyone by surprise, including his closest aides such as Mr Brajesh Mishra (who had served as principal secretary and National Security Advisor to Vajpayee, from 1998 to 2004). But that speech finally led to a positive response, and visionary decisions at the January 2004 Islamabad SAARC summit, to integrate South Asia.

Vajpayee’s Perseverance

To illustrate how tough Mr Vajpayee’s journey towards peace was, it is worth recalling where it began. It was July 1998, and one of the largest gatherings of journalists was waiting in a banquet hall of the Taj Hotel in Colombo. The first meeting of the prime ministers of India and Pakistan since their nuclear tests, was underway down a corridor in that hotel.

That bilateral summit was on the sidelines of the SAARC summit conference of that year, but for the hundreds of journalists who had descended on Colombo from across the world, this bilateral was the most important event. The world was waiting to see how the meeting of the two countries’ top leaders would go, so soon after the nuclear tests in May that year. For at least some of the time, the two leaders met without aides.

Since security requirements meant that we had to wait for several hours, I got restless and slipped into the corridor off which the meeting was taking place.

I happened to be there when the meeting ended, and Mr Vajpayee emerged. I have never seen anyone look more dejected than he did, as he emerged with an extremely halting gait.

Yet, Vajpayee persevered. He got a more positive response from Mr Sharif on the sidelines of the next meeting—on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September that year. And that led to the Lahore summit in February 1999, for which Vajpayee chose to go by bus in a symbolic journey across a border that had been shut for decades.

It was a memorable visit. Although the Pakistan Army undermined that effort at the height of Kargil, Vajpayee’s determination to bring peace finally succeeded in 2003-04.

That the arduous effort was allowed to fall by the wayside over the next few years, is another story.

(The writer is a senior, Kashmir-based author and journalist. He can be reached at @david_devadas. 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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