Vajpayee’s larger vision of India and the world encapsulated his foreign policy in Pakistan

Of the many anecdotes about former Prime Minister Vajpayee’s interface with Pakistan, one stands out in highlighting his instinctive grasp of popular sentiments there. This was in February 1978 during his visit as foreign minister and the occasion was a state banquet in Islamabad being hosted by his counterpart. The Pakistani foreign office found out only hours before the banquet that the Indian foreign minister would speak in Urdu. The Pakistan foreign minister’s speech had been prepared in English, it was hurriedly translated into heavily Persianised Urdu which, when delivered, had a formal stilted quality to it. FM Vajpayee spoke extempore and was at his inspired best, generously interspersing what he said with Urdu verse and striking a chord with the audience. Those in the Pakistani delegation could not but help note how more much at ease with Pakistani’s national language the Indian FM was.

His subsequent initiatives with Pakistan — the Lahore visit of 1998 and the Islamabad visit of 2004 — have overshadowed the 1978 visit, but at the time it had a landmark character. The last Indian foreign minister to visit had been Sardar Swaran Singh in 1966 and in between had been the breakup of Pakistan in 1971. As a diplomatic feat in adding strength to the normalisation underway in bilateral ties, its impact was considerable. An important outcome was the resumption of bilateral cricket ties frozen since 1960-61 when Pakistan had toured India. Some months after FM Vajpayee’s visit, the Indian cricket team toured Pakistan. Imran Khan, now Prime Minister, was a member of the Pakistan team. Incidentally, the matches were telecast live and for many in India this was their first view of Pakistan — even if only of a cricket stadium on a TV screen.

Each of PM Vajpayee’s visits to Pakistan had an enduring optical quality to them. The January 2004 visit, however, had an additional dramatic intensity. A cease fire on the LOC had come into effect only recently in November 2003 (and remains in place to this day). In the three weeks before PM Vajpayee arrived, General Musharraf had narrowly escaped two assassination attempts. He appeared on TV after the second attempt, and looked so visibly shaken that it was clear that the escape had been a narrow one. For many Indians this was the real proof that Pakistan’s narrative on terrorism had to change. General’s Musharraf’s commitments on terrorism conveyed in Islamabad on January 6, 2004, and popular support in both countries for normalisation of ties was to drive the relationship for the next few years, until the terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008.

Discordances in India-Pakistan relations, in fact, surfaced frequently during Vajpayee’s engagement with Islamabad. As foreign minister in November 1978, he found the ongoing cricket series had been transformed into a gladiatorial contest when Gen Zia Ul Haq declared a national holiday after Pakistan won the second Test. More serious was the Kargil incursion after his landmark Lahore visit in February 1999. Alongside his desire for good relations was a hard-headed appreciation of our own national interest exemplified by Op Vijay to expel the Kargil intruders. Similarly, during the Agra summit in July 2001, faced with General’s Musharraf’s over reach he was prepared to walk away and accept that all summits need not have outcomes. His anger after the attack on Parliament in December 2001 was palpable and the calibrated resort to coercive diplomacy was the outcome.

Through these and other provocations he retained a philosophical equanimity, to underline that the present phase would end and the initiative on next steps would remain his. The second millennium had dawned in India at almost the same time as the hijacked IC814 plane flew back from Kandahar with its traumatised passengers and crew. Addressing the nation, PM Vajpayee spoke of the need to combat terrorism as being the first resolution the country had to make for the new century and said the “the battle against terrorism can be won”. But he was also to say “terrorism is only one of the challenges we will have to overcome in the 21st century” and “let us resolve to make the new century an Indian century”. This larger vision of India and the world encapsulated PM Vajpayee’s foreign policy in Pakistan.

T C A Raghavan is a former high commissioner to Pakistan and is currently director general of the Indian Council of World Affairs.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Aug 20, 2018 18:44 IST

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