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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Rear View: To the brink and back

Vajpayee tirelessly sought to improve relations with Pakistan, despite setbacks.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
Updated: August 10, 2015 12:00:14 am
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India Pakistan, Lahore summit, Nawaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Kargil, Kargil war, India Pakistan Kargil, General Pervez Musharraf, Indian express, express column It is reasonably well known that Vajpayee’s decision to invite Musharraf to Agra was the only major policy initiative he hadn’t discussed with his most trusted confidant and most powerful aide, Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra, because the PM knew that Mishra’s thinking would be different.

As we have noted, the fiasco of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s busride to Lahore for summit talks with Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister then as now, and of the high-sounding but hollow declaration they named after the city, was followed by the Kargil War. Yet, there was no let-up in Vajpayee’s efforts to make peace with Pakistan. To the astonishment of many, not very long after the perfidious war on the Kargil and adjacent heights, the PM invited Pakistan’s then military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, for a summit meeting in Agra. As was only to be expected, he readily agreed.

The Kargil misadventure was the brainchild as well as the handiwork of Musharraf, when he was Sharif’s handpicked chief of army staff, and he had taken care to secure Sharif’s belated consent for his plan. However, exactly 108 days after losing the Kargil War, Musharraf staged a coup against Sharif during the latter’s botched move to sack the former while he was in mid-air, returning home from Sri Lanka. Thereafter, there was no option but to deal with him.

It is reasonably well known that Vajpayee’s decision to invite Musharraf to Agra was the only major policy initiative he hadn’t discussed with his most trusted confidant and most powerful aide, Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra, because the PM knew that Mishra’s thinking would be different. Senior cabinet ministers, particularly the deputy PM and then Home Minister L.K. Advani and Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh were in favour of the move.

There is no doubt that the Agra summit was a disaster. For all practical purposes this had become unavoidable after Musharraf’s provocative breakfast meeting with editors and commentators. Even so, intensive negotiations went on mostly between the two leaders, although sometimes full delegations also met. Late in the evening, the two foreign ministers, Jaswant Singh and Abdul Sattar, brought a typed draft agreement on which the two of them had made changes by hand. A long meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security was not satisfied and wanted a further change. When this seemed possible, arrangements for the signing ceremony started being made. But these had to be halted because, finally, no agreement could be reached. Musharraf decided to leave for Islamabad in a huff. It was soon confirmed that Advani had vetoed the agreement. Incidentally, he was not part of the negotiating delegation. But he was in Agra as a member of the CCS. Tensions between the two countries were now greater than before Musharraf’s arrival.

It must be added that, all the while, cross-border terrorism by the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) — militant organisations fully backed by the Pakistan army and its intelligence agency, the ISI, but described by the Pakistan government as “non-state actors” — had gone on targeting India. As early as January 2001, the LeT had attacked the Red Fort. The notorious Hafiz Saeed, who had “vowed” to “unfurl the green Islamic flag” on India’s great heritage, organised exultations across Pakistan.

Near the year’s end, on December 13, the JeM attacked our Parliament. Vajpayee’s response was Operation Parakram (valour), which meant a full mobilisation.

It was the second-largest mobilisation in this country, next only to that for the 1971 war for the liberation of Bangladesh.

Since Pakistan too mobilised, the two armies faced each other eyeball-to-eyeball across the International Border (IB) as well as the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir.

Parakram was on when, in May 2002, at a place called Kaluchak in Kashmir, LeT terrorists massacred the wives and children of servicemen when they were away on the border. However, a clash on the front was avoided. Tensions began to subside partly because of intense foreign, especially American, pressure on both countries and partly because the cost of the fierce confrontation was huge. Before October, it was agreed that the two sides would withdraw their forces to their peacetime locations. India’s need to keep its troops on the LoC until after the elections in Kashmir was also accepted.

As A.S. Dulat has revealed in his latest book, in early 2003, Vajpayee told him that he was about to make his “final attempt” to improve Indo-Pakistan relations. He had, by that time, returned from a visit to China. This time round, there seemed to be some progress. In November 2003, Musharraf declared a ceasefire, partly because Pakistanis wanting to infiltrate into India were having a very hard time in the Neelam Valley.

In January 2004, Vajpayee travelled to Islamabad again. This time, the result was even better. Musharraf gave an assurance in writing that the “territory of Pakistan and the territory under Pakistan’s control would not be allowed to be used against India”. But things change. In India’s May 2004 general elections, the supremely confident Vajpayee-led government lost to what came to be known as the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh diarchy that was to rule the country for a whole decade.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator.

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