by Iftikhar Gilani
The first time I saw former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee face-to-face was when riots had broken out in the Nizamuddin locality in the heart of Delhi sometime in the early 90s. I had just begun working as an intern and was ordered to accompany a senior to cover riots in which four people had lost their lives. A nallah in this historic locality that houses tombs of Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin, poets Amir Khusru, Ghalib, Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan and Mughal Emperor Humayun divides Hindu and Muslim areas. Across the nallah, the then caretaker of the Dargah Pir Zamin Nizami had donated a portion of the land a few decades ago for the construction of Lodhi Road crematorium for the Hindus living in the area. Since the population of the Hindus had grown, they wanted to expand the crematorium, which was the bone of contention.
As I reached the locality, a strict curfew had been imposed. But after checking press cards, the police would allow us to pass through barricades. Blood was still splattered on the road near the tomb of Ghalib. The area looked like a ghost town till I crossed the nallah, where people were gathered in large numbers, throwing stones and raising slogans. East Delhi MP Bankath Lal Sharma alias Prem was addressing the crowd, pointing towards the green flag fluttering on the dargah dome, claiming it was a Pakistan flag. Suddenly there was commotion with the arrival of a white Ambassador car. Vajpayee and Madan Lal Khurana emerged and soon went inside a room for a huddle.
When they emerged, Vajpayee took the mike and clarified that the flag on the dome was not Pakistani flag, but the religious flag of Muslims. As he was walking to his car, I asked him why he is not helping the police to enforce a curfew and also not dissuading people on the banks of the nallah from throwing stones to the other side. He put his hand on my shoulders and said, “Young man, they (Muslims) started it, threw stones, didn’t allow construction of the crematorium. They should understand to live together.” Realising that I may be the target of the crowd for asking such questions, he asked his bodyguards to accompany me until I was safe.
I remember in 2004, the late Pramod Mahajan had to cut short his election campaign midway in Maharashtra and return to Delhi to explain the remarks he had made against Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Vajpayee had pulled him up for making personal comments against Gandhi. In 1991, Narasimha Rao preferred a technocrat Manmohan Singh as finance minister. Singh would frequently become the target of the Opposition. Since he was a technocrat, he would frequently dish out his resignation letter, which the PM would reject. One day, when he announced to cut subsidy of fertilisers, it created a storm in Parliament. Soon, as the House adjourned, Vajpayee, who was the Leader of the Opposition, invited Singh to his chamber. According to Singh, Vajpayee had a piece of advice for him: “You are now a politician. You must be thick skinned and not offer resignation on every issue. Our job is to criticise you. That is our politics. Your job is to remain steadfast and continue with your reforms for the sake of making the country’s economy stronger and better.” Many years later, it was revealed that Rao had pleaded with Vajpayee to give these primary lessons of politics to Manmohan Singh.
In March 2003, when US President George Bush announced war on Iraq, he wanted Indian troops to join the global effort to help in the ouster of Saddam Hussain. Many leaders within the government and the BJP were in favour of joining the US war. Parliament was in session. When Parliament went to recess, Vajpayee invited Left leaders for breakfast to the Prime Minister’s residence. He told them that there was tremendous pressure on him to join the US war. Naturally, the Left leaders opposed. According to Sitaram Yechuri, the current general secretary of CPI (M), Vajpayee smiled and taunted them that their opposition like Congress is limited to issuing statements in drawing rooms. That was a message, according to Yechuri, to hit the streets. Suddenly after this meeting, street protests against the US military strike on Iraq and possible Indian help started in different cities. Vajpayee wanted the excuse of domestic protests to convince the US that consensus eludes in his country.
Vajpayee’s initiatives to end India’s diplomatic isolation, arising out of the 1998 nuclear tests, were a stupendous success. However, after conveying India’s nuclear strength, Vajpayee took the risk of reaching out to Pakistan suggesting an end to hostility by exploring creative solutions to problems afflicting bilateral relations. The bus journey from Amritsar to Lahore was loaded with symbolism. Vajpayee decided to take with him a delegation of writers, poets, painters, sportsmen, actors and musicians.
At the Lahore summit with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, he had set up a backchannel to explore solutions to the most contentious issue of J&K. Former Pakistani foreign secretary and high commissioner to India, Niaz Naik, who was nominated by Sharif as his backchannel contact, said that both countries would have reached an agreement in September or October 1999 if Kargil had not happened. Two years later, in July 2001, he invited Pakistani president Pervez Musharaf to Agra. In December 2001, Parliament was attacked and Operation Parakram led to the massive deployment of forces along the borders. Again in April 2003, without consulting his cabinet colleagues, at a rally in Srinagar, he made yet another unilateral peace offer to his own Kashmiris as well as those in Pakistan and it yielded the Islamabad Declaration after a summit with Musharraf in January 2004. He lost office in May 2004.
Vajpayee’s biggest regret was that he could not take the peace process he had initiated with such enthusiasm to its logical conclusion of ending India-Pakistan hostility for all time. Paying befitting tributes, PM Modi walked four and a half kilometres to accompany Vajpayee on his last journey. But a more befitting tribute would be to traverse the path shown by Vajpayee to prevent bloodshed in the region and evolve South Asia into an economic union.
The writer is Editor, Strategic Affairs for DNA. Views are personal.