Recalling the Iconic Strategic Leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee

While deeply regretting the passing away of the iconic former prime minister, Bharat Ratna, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, I perceive no better way of condoling the loss to the nation than by recalling from memory his iconic contribution towards India’s strategic construct. In writing this I ensure that I refer to no book, document, or any other reference because to do that would be sacrilege. The memory of Vajpayee is embedded where it should be, deep in the psyche because I followed his progress as a leader from the time I became aware of what strategic leadership is all about.

The only personal interaction with him goes back to 1982 when I had the privileged chance to share with him a four bunk compartment of the Mussoorie Express during a journey from Dehradun to Delhi. We were alone during the journey. The few waking hours that one spent during that memorable time were spent in just listening to him.

From early years, even before television really became a means of information and news, Vajpayee’s mark in Indian politics had already been made due to the sheer brilliance of his eloquence. Rarely would a politician around the world have made a mark with his style of communication the way he did. In the days when India’s political scene was dominated by the giants of the Indian National Congress, Vajpayee had already carved his own niche space in Parliament. Little did one realise then of what lay in his destiny. It was the All India Radio announcement in March 1977 which I tuned into, that gave the news that in the new first ever non-Congress government being then formed under Morarji Desai, the Foreign Minister (not External Affairs then as far as I can recall) would be Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee; and those were the very words.

His appointment drew cheer all around and gave him greater insight into international affairs. Those were turbulent days. General Zia ul Haq overthrew Zulfiqar Bhutto in Pakistan to assume power in July 1977 a few months after the Janata government came into being. It was from this juncture that Pakistan’s process of seeking retribution against India for the loss of its eastern wing, really commenced. It was during the ongoing Vajpayee visit to Beijing in 1979 that China decided to invade Vietnam and punish it for having entered Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge. Vajpayee cut short the visit in protest, an act which has been long remembered in Indian diplomacy. The stint as Foreign Minister was short as the Janata Government fell apart leading to the return of Congress rule. Yet, the brief period in government tempered his mind and his understanding of the world which helped him tremendously in later years in and out of power.

It is the out of power recall which is most important here and that needs mention before getting to the Vajpayee years when he headed different governments of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP)/National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Vajpayee was credited for taking the BJP’s political fortunes out of the woods after the disastrous defeat of 1984 when it could muster only two seats in the Lower House. He rebuilt the party to make it stand on its feet creditably and bounced it back to an 85 seats presence in 1989.

It is the period from 1991 to 1996 when Vajpayee’s known friendship with then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao helped the national strategic cause in no small way. India was under huge pressure from the international community over Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and the first Clinton Administration (1993-96) showed no signs of support to the Indian cause. In fact, the then Assistant Secretary of State, Robin Raphael, wife of the late and former US Ambassador to Pakistan who was killed along with Zia ul Haq in the infamous air crash near Bahawalpur, targeted India’s J&K policy and attempted to paint it red in the international community. It was with the statesman like attitude of Vajpayee supporting the incumbent Prime Minister, without concern for party interests, that the Parliament could get together and pass a Joint All Party Resolution of both Houses on 22 February 1994. The Resolution went on to express India’s unstinted claim over the entire territory of J&K at a time when it was under pressure from the international community. It was a landmark in Indian Parliamentary history.

Four months later, India was again under intense pressure from Pakistan and Robin Raphael over alleged human rights (HR) violations in J&K and was being hauled over the coals at the first United National Human Rights Commission (now Council) meeting at Geneva. To take the wind out of the sails of the Pakistani campaign, the Indian delegation was led by none other than Vajpayee and giving him company were Salman Khurshid and Farooq Abdullah. The political support Vajpayee extended to Rao during the crisis period of 1994 was one of the greatest displays of political maturity in India’s post-Independence history; it was all for India’s national strategic interest.

In 1996, the writing was on the wall for the Rao government as the Vajpayee leadership put BJP firmly ahead. Unconfirmed but yet significant is the fact that Rao had been under intense US pressure and his intent of breaking free through the overt testing of India’s nuclear capability could not be realised. It was Vajpayee who finally went and did the unfinished business; this was in his second tenure as Prime Minister after the first stint of 13 days when he gracefully abdicated rather than face a vote.

Between 11 and 13 April 1998, under Vajpayee’s overall leadership, the Indian nuclear scientist community hoodwinked US surveillance and tested five nuclear devices in underground facilities at Pokharan putting India firmly on the nuclear weapons map of the world as only the sixth nation to overtly possess such capability. It was the beginning of the Vajpayee era which would see many major strategic decisions over the next six years commencing with his decision to extend the olive branch to Pakistan and undertake the Lahore Bus Yatra in February 1999. Behind it was his firm belief that dialogue with Pakistan would ensure necessary confidence building to resolve issues politically and force Pakistan to pull back from the disastrous choice it had made of fighting a proxy war in J&K. It was the same belief with which in 2014 Prime Minister Narendra Modi commenced his tenure and saw initiatives such as Ufa and the dash to Lahore before Pakistan chose to upset the process. In 1999, Vajpayee was similarly hit by Pakistan’s strategy of pursuing a peace process with the signing of the Lahore Declaration of February 1999 even as it was simultaneously preparing for the Kargil incursion which occurred three months later.

Kargil 1999 surprised India as it occurred just too soon after the commencement of Vajpayee’s initiative of the Lahore Yatra. Even as the Indian Army fought at the Kargil heights restoring its hold over the intrusions, Vajpayee was under intense pressure to broaden the scope of the war. It was obvious that the international community would not blame India for the escalation but it was Vajpayee’s strategic mind and statesmanship, expressed between deep bouts of thinking so characteristic of him, that considered escalation as unnecessary. The Indian Air Force was unhappy over its restrictions of not crossing the LoC as much was the Army. Yet, it was a time when both India and Pakistan had just gone overtly nuclear; doctrines and response guidelines were yet not in place and the Indian Army lacked a typical cold start capability. Discretion was the better among options as a war at that stage may have gone out of control. There are many who are critical of this decision but with degree of certainty of a military victory and the international community restless over the nuclear status of both nations, it would obviously energetically venture to end hostilities. The LoC was restored by a masterful combination of military and diplomatic efforts, although the cost in terms of lives lost was heavy (527 killed). If the diplomatic pressures on the US and thus on Pakistan had failed, the cost of restoration through military means may have meant many more lives of our soldiers and equally of the adversary.

Kargil was followed by the Agra Summit in 2001 where Vajpayee refused to relent to pressure from Pakistan’s President Musharraf, with the summit ending in an utter failure. His period as Prime Minister also witnessed the largest turbulence in J&K in terms of terrorists killed; in 2001. It led to a couple of important decisions. Among these were the expansion of the Rashtriya Rifles, the extension of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA-90) to the Jammu division to assist the Army in controlling the spiraling militancy and terror there. It was also at this time that the Kargil Review Committee submitted its report to the government. A Group of Ministers was immediately set up to study it and recommend the measures to be executed to improve national security. Again, the decision, to set up the Headquarters (HQ) Integrated Defense Staff (IDS), the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) and the first Tri Services Command - HQ Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC), were all taken in early 2001 within less than two years of the Kargil operations. The delegation of additional powers to the three Services was also executed with effect 15 August 2001. A decision was taken to reduce the age of frontline officer functionaries of the Services. The AV Singh Committee was set up and a full cadre review with release of additional select rank vacancies recommended; it was finally executed with effect end of 2004 by when the NDA-1 government had ceased to be in power. It was the speed of transformative reforms which was mind boggling.

There were two more areas where the Vajpayee imprint was firmly felt. On 13 December 2001, Pakistan’s Deep State chose to target India’s Parliament House with a terror attack, in the wake of the twin tower attacks in the US on 9/11. With India’s national pride and psyche hit adversely, there was no option but to mobilise the forces for war. That war was never to be and Vajpayee faced severe criticism over this. Again, he chose discretion over anything drastic and reasoned with his advisers on the terminal benefits of war for India. Operation Parakram lasted over a year and the Army suffered a large number of casualties.

In my opinion one of the greatest achievements of the Vajpayee strategy was a temporary change of heart of Pakistan’s President Musharraf. The latter perhaps perceived how he would go down in history as a rogue and a repeated villain of peace, while Vajpayee would gain much as the statesman with all his repeated gestures of it. Perhaps the final straw came in 2003, Vajpayee’s penultimate year in power. On 18 April of that year during a visit to Kashmir, Vajpayee outlined his famous philosophy of resolving J&K through dialogue with Pakistan and the people. The words – “Insaniyat ke daiyere mein” rang loud and clear, lifting him to a status of full and final endearment among the people of J&K; perhaps a level to which no Indian Prime Minister had ever risen. From that emerged the soft slogan – ‘Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat, Kashmiriyat’; the three principles by which peace would be sought by the Indian state in J&K. Prime Minister Narendra Modi even repeated these in his speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day 2018.

The ceasefire of 26 November 2003, always considered unilateral, would never have been offered by Musharraf if there had not been enough positive overtures from Vajpayee. It was his larger than life presence in the subcontinent which gave Musharraf the confidence that India would be sincere in its efforts towards peace; he had experienced enough of the mature leadership of his counterpart who simply refused to be provoked. The poet and the philosopher in the personality of Vajpayee could not allow himself to be provoked and therein lay his greatness. As his expression and articulation lapsed into greater periods of silence through the years, it was his stability of decision-making which continued to enhance; that indeed is the hallmark of a great leader. The final bit – the initiation of a dialogue process with Pakistan seeking peace without changing borders could last some time with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the helm. It was perhaps too utopian an idea and much before its time. It died its death after four years of backroom diplomacy once the Mumbai terror attacks took place.

It was never my intent to chronologically lay out Bharat Ratna Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s milestones as a strategic leader. Yet, once this commenced it could not stop because these came racing to the mind. The iconic former prime minister has breathed his last but leaves behind many memories of what strategic leadership really means. Enough justice has not yet been done to the achievements he had to his credit. Perhaps, as it always happens with most humans, it is the aftermath which will reveal much more of what a poet, a philosopher, a politician, and above all a humanist, all rolled in one, can achieve if his nation chooses to elevate him to the status of its Prime Minister.

Rest in peace, Bharat Ratna Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Be assured your memories will remain ‘amar’ for your grateful nation.

 

This article was originally published on swarajyamag.com and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.