Atal Bihari Vajpayee became a legend much before he became the country’s Prime Minister. He was not only a consummate politician but also the most skillful diplomat the country has produced.
Despite the demands of his office when he was the Prime Minister, Vajpayee took a deep interest in foreign affairs, forging close partnerships with global powers. In fact, many say it was Vajpayee who personally navigated the country’s complex foreign policy when he was at the helm between 1998 and 2004.
However, his failure to achieve a breakthrough in India’s accident-prone relationship with Pakistan despite his path-breaking initiatives continued to rankle him even after he demitted office following the BJP’s shock defeat in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls.
Vajpayee was convinced that the road to peace with Pakistan passed through Jammu and Kashmir. Therefore, it was in a speech in 2003 that he gave the slogan of ‘’Insaaniyat (humanity), Jamhooriyat (democracy) Kashmiriyat (culture of Kashmir)’’ for peace in the valley. The slogan is now famously known as the ‘Vajpayee Doctrine” which was invoked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day address to the nation on Wednesday.
His first term as PM was rather bizarre as his government fell in just 13 days. It was only during his second term that stretched from 1998-99, that he was put to real test. During this period, India conducted its second series of nuclear tests at Pokhran in May 1998, triggering a global outcry which led to economic and military sanctions against the country.
This was a period of total isolation for India. Yet, Vajpayee and his team resisted any knee-jerk reaction even as India refused to surrender to the dictates of global powers and boldly faced the challenge posed by the sanctions.
The maturity is shown by the Vajpayee government in dealing with the crisis gradually started paying dividends as it soon dawned on the United States and other major powers that even the crippling sanctions had not had any major impact on India’s economy and the country continued to grow at a satisfactory pace.
The most remarkable thing about Vajpayee’s foreign policy was his effort to befriend the United States which culminated in the signing of what is known as the ‘Vision Document’. This agreement emerged during US President Bill Clinton’s state visit to India in January 2000.
It was after a gap of 22 years that an American President was visiting India. Vajpayee reciprocated with a visit to US the same year in September. Thus, Vajpayee’s administration could well be credited with laying the foundation of what is today a very robust India-US partnership.
He also extended his hand of friendship to China in a big way by laying down the broad parameters for finding a peaceful solution to the lingering boundary dispute. It was during his Prime Ministership that India and China established the mechanism for talks between Special Representatives (SRs) on both sides for resolving the border issue in 2003.
Besides, during his time, India also cultivated strong ties with other countries like Russia, France, Israel, Iran and the countries in the neighbourhood and multilateral groupings such as ASEAN and EU. The ‘Moscow Declaration’ signed in 2001 by Vajpayee and President Vladimir Putin also marked the beginning of a close security and trade relationship with Russia.
Success, however, eluded even as astute a politician as Vajpayee when it came to re-setting India’s relationship with Pakistan. His relentless efforts for normalising ties with Pakistan went in vain as the hostile neighbour stabbed him in the back time and again.
It was only a statesmanlike Vajpayee who could undertake a historic bus journey to Lahore in 1999 in search of peace. But even as he was being hosted by his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif at the historic Lahore Fort, the then Pakistan Army chief, Gen Pervez Musharraf was giving final touches to his covert plan of deception in Kargil.
Thanks to Vajpayee’s bold leadership, India succeeded in evicting Pakistani troops from the hills but it had to pay a heavy price in terms of casualties among brave Indian soldiers.
Despite the betrayal in Kargil, Vajpayee did not give up on his mission for peace with Pakistan. In 2001, he invited Musharraf, who had then become President of the country, to Agra for a summit. But Musharraf spoiled the spirit of the summit by holding a controversial breakfast meeting with Indian editors, thus ensuring its failure.
In 2004, Vajpayee again travelled to Pakistan for the SAARC Summit. It was after his meeting with Musharraf that Pakistan for the first time committed itself to ensuring that the Pakistani territory would not be used for sponsoring terrorism in India.
But even 14 years after making this solemn commitment, Pakistan continues to use terrorism against India as an instrument of state policy.