During his short, second stint as Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee handled India’s second nuclear tests, diplomatic ties with Pakistan and the Kargil conflict. On 20th Feb 1999, he inaugurated the Delhi-Lahore bus service in a gesture of peace with Pakistan.
He famously told Indian VIPs accompanying him, the media and his Pakistani hosts, including Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif: “I’m conscious that this is a defining moment in South Asian history and I hope we will be able to rise to the challenge.”
But his peace efforts were thwarted by Kashmiri terrorists, who killed 26 Hindus in Jammu. In Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islami came out on the streets to derail Vajpayee’s ‘bus diplomacy’, but he was unmoved.
Then, Vajpayee posed for pictures in front of the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore (a monument to the creation of Pakistan). This surprised both his supporters and detractors because he was a member of the RSS, which rejects the 1947 Partition of India as a historical folly.
Vajpayee also signed the Lahore Declaration with Nawaz Sharif. It called for a bilateral resolution to all issues that faced both neighbours, including that of Jammu & Kashmir and terrorism. But the Pakistani Army was not on the same page.
While Vajpayee was still in Lahore, Army chief Pervez Musharraf was overseeing a major operation to occupy strategic heights in the Kargil, Drass and Batalik sectors in Kashmir. Pakistani soldiers had infiltrated India, masquerading as the ‘Mujahideen’.
In May 1999, Vajpayee ordered the Indian Army to push back the Pakistani intruders. Indian soldiers scaled steep cliffs in full view of the enemy, braving mortars and bullets, in what came to be called the Kargil War.
The two nations were on the verge of a full-scale nuclear flare-up, and to limit the conflict, Vajpayee insisted that India would not accept a ceasefire unless Pakistani soldiers retreated completely. He also told Indian forces not to cross the LOC.
This convinced the international community that Pakistan was the aggressor. It also brought the US closer to India, as relations had been strained by the nuclear tests at Pokhran a year earlier. President Bill Clinton asked Sharif to withdraw his forces from Kargil.
In his brief stint as PM, Vajpayee took bold, imaginative and pragmatic foreign policy decisions. His diplomatic efforts with China failed but his moves on the world stage helped India repair ties with the US and even enter into a strategic partnership with that country.
Cover Image: Global Village Space
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