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Atal Bihari Vajpayee and national security: Daring leap, step by step

Atal Bihari Vajpayee dead: With altered security paradigm, he engaged with China, made peace moves towards Pakistan

Written by Sushant Singh | New Delhi |
Updated: August 17, 2018 11:25:26 am
Vajpayee dead, atal bihari vajpayee dead, abdul kalam, Atal Bihari Vajpayee with missile man Abdul Kalam (File Photo)

When it comes to national security, Atal Bihari Vajpayee drew on the legacy of his predecessors and left a legacy which fundamentally recrafted the paradigm, the most significant of them being the nuclear tests of 1998. Days after former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao’s demise in 2004, Vajpayee publicly acknowledged that in May 1996, a few days after he had succeeded Rao as prime minister for the first time, “Rao told me that the bomb was ready. I only exploded it.”

“Saamagri tayyar hai (The ingredients are ready),” Rao had said. “You can go ahead.”

Vajpayee actually gave the orders for the nuclear tests which had been postponed in 1995 after Americans discovered the preparation in Pokharan. But Vajpayee soon realised that his government in 1996 was unlikely to last and rescinded the order for the tests. Back in 1998 as head of a larger and a more stable coalition, one of the first orders by his government was the ‘go ahead’ for conducting the tests.

The secrecy about the preparation for the tests, which left the CIA confounded, has now entered the realm of legend. Five tests were conducted on May 11 and 13, taking forward the nuclear programme which owed its origins to Jawaharlal Nehru, weaponised under Indira Gandhi and progressed under every succeeding prime minister. Vajpayee took that forward, fully aware that economic sanctions by western governments following the tests were a certainty. Those sanctions lasted five years and India was able to bear them out, more so than Pakistan which tested a few days after India and suffered the same consequences.

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The decision to become a declared nuclear power altered the security paradigm in the region, whether it be vis-à-vis Pakistan or the bigger adversary, China. Vajpayee responded to it in many ways – announcing a draft nuclear doctrine for public consumption in August 1999, by taking steps for greater engagement with China, in keeping with what he had earlier done in his stint as the foreign minister in the Janata Party government in late 1970s, and allaying global fears of a ‘Nuclear Armageddon’ by making bold peace moves towards Pakistan.

In a breath-taking move which astounded observers all over, Vajpayee led a bus yatra in February 1999 from Amritsar to Lahore where he was welcomed by his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif who wholly reciprocated the Indian Prime Minister’s gesture. The dramatic gesture of Vajpayee on a bus crossing the India-Pakistan border was preceded by strong diplomatic work which led to a plethora of substantive announcements including the Lahore Declaration.

But the euphoria of Lahore was to be short-lived, as unknown to the Indians and undetected by intelligence agencies or armed forces, Pakistan Army had infiltrated its soldiers across the LoC and occupied the heights in Kargil, Dras and Batalik regions of Kashmir. Notwithstanding his trip to Lahore – or the fact that India and Pakistan were now both declared nuclear weapon states – Vajpayee decided to use the armed forces to evict the intruders out of Kargil. That it was done after he had lost a vote of confidence in Lok Sabha and was heading a caretaker government did not make a difference. Backed by some deft diplomatic moves, he withstood the supposed threat of a Pakistani nuclear strike and ordered the use of the Indian Air Force, besides the Army, in Kargil in what was to turn out to be India’s first televised war.

Hearing his magnificent oratory, Jawaharlal Nehru had predicted that Vajpayee would be Prime Minister one day. (Photo: Praveen Jain)

The public perception about the success of the war was huge, helping Vajpayee in no small measure in winning a clear majority in 1999 general elections. But the limitations on the use of military to own side of the LoC, and keeping the war limited to Kashmir – unlike Shastri in 1965 who responded to Pakistan’s actions in Kashmir by opening the rest of the front – also brought home the new harsh realities of a nuclear subcontinent. That India’s national security structures, intelligence agencies, decision making and state of equipping were found wanting was well-established by the end of the Kargil War.

Vajpayee responded by establishing a commission headed by noted defence analyst, K Subrahmanyam, whose recommendations were to become a template for future national security reform. Following the Subrahmanyam committee, a Group of Ministers on National Security gave its sets of recommendations in 2000, many of them far-reaching. Some of them were acted upon but many about higher defence reform remain unimplemented, following inter-service differences and lack of political consensus.

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This came in the wake of one major blot on his name at the end of the millennium, when his government conceded to the demands of the terrorists and released three dreaded Pakistani terrorists in exchange for the passengers of a hijacked Indian Airlines aeroplane at Kandahar. Although Vajpayee was hemmed in by the television coverage of families of those kidnapped and the prospect of 300 bodies returning to India, the image of India’s foreign minister accompanying the terrorists was hard to live down.

Although General Pervez Musharraf, the architect of Kargil had deposed Sharif in a coup, Vajpayee, as a pragmatic political leader, had no hesitation in opening the lines of communication with the military dictator. He invited him to Agra for talks in July 2001, an initiative which failed spectacularly but not without highlighting the peaceful intentions of his government.

As back-channel attempts to engage Musharraf continued, Pakistan-backed terrorists attacked Indian parliament in broad daylight in December 13, 2001. Vajpayee responded by mobilising Indian armed forces to the Pakistan border, but his bold political move fell short as the lumbering Army took weeks to mobilise giving time for global diplomacy to take effect. The nuclear question again hung in the air and eventually, Musharraf made major concessions on Pakistan-based terror groups on national television, another first in India-Pakistan relations. It allowed India to move its troops away but set a template for future terror attacks on India with a Pakistani connection – the limitations of a conventional war in a nuclear environment were now well-established.

But Vajpayee moved on other military fronts too. He and Musharraf announced a ceasefire on the LoC, which brought the temperature down between the two armies on Kashmir border besides allowing India to control infiltration of militants from PoK into Kashmir. That it followed a ceasefire with Hizbul Mujahideen in Kashmir, and has held till date – being reiterated by Indian and Pakistan DGMOs as recently as May 29 – shows that Vajpayee thought in big strategic moves. His tenure may have been only for six years but the impact of his actions on country’s national security will live on for a very long time.

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