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Why Atal Bihari Vajpayee wanted to visit Pakistan

In this excerpt from his memoir of working with the former prime minister, Shakti Sinha revisits the heady days of 1999 as the CTBT was tabled before India and Pakistan to sign

In this file photo taken on January 06, 2004, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee (R) and the then Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali (L) wave upon Vajpayee's departure to India after the 12th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit, at Islamabad International Airport. (Photo by Aamir QURESHI / AFP) (AFP)

(On 2 February 1999), while addressing a press meet in Lucknow, (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee said, ‘I would like to have a bus ride from Delhi to Lahore.’ Since this was a bombshell, the media wanted more information. At that stage, all Vajpayee could say was that the details would be worked out between the two governments. Since it wasn’t Delhi, Vajpayee could get away with such cryptic answers. He did clarify, however, that some progress has been made but added that ‘much ground [is] yet to be covered before India becomes a signatory to the CTBT’ (Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty). He made it clear that there were obviously a number of steps required before this could happen.

As expected, this announcement of the Lahore visit set off a multitude of reactions from analysts and commentators. Significantly, the impending visit was generally seen as an indication that India and Pakistan were moving on the road to signing the CTBT. This was because the US specifically, and the West in general, maintained that ‘only close and friendly relations between India and Pakistan can avoid effectively a suicidal nuclear race in South Asia’. This was despite India shouting from the rooftops that its security concerns went beyond Pakistan.

There were a number of reports in the media that Western and Japanese sources believed that India would sign the CTBT by end of April or early May. This belief was based on a readout of the Jaswant–Talbots talks, as briefed by the Americans. To strengthen this narrative, the State Department spokesperson, James Rubin, on 2 February, said that the US had not diluted its commitment to the CTBT, in order for India and Pakistan to sign it. The unambiguous message was that it was India, and not the US, which was making major concessions in moving ahead with improving relations. The US made it explicit that the CTBT would come into effect as per the treaty; in other words, India and Pakistan would sign up. For India and Pakistan, the expectation was clear. They needed to have a number of mechanisms in place, namely a nuclear weapons and delivery system restraint regime; a stringent export control system; a moratorium on fissile materials production pending agreement on the FMCT (Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty); direct India–Pakistan talks on all outstanding bilateral issues, including nuclear. It was obvious that the US was targeting to get India on board for not just the CTBT but also for the NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons).

Editorial comment in India was more upbeat and less about the international ramifications. It was suggested that the bus trip showed a new mood of bonhomie, suggesting ‘a distinct thawing of relations’. There were references to the idea of a common destiny of both India and Pakistan, despite the three wars, Pakistan’s proxy war and terrorist activity elsewhere. Analysts remembered that it was Vajpayee as foreign minister who had opened up to Pakistan. There was a general feeling, which exists even now, that in dealing with Pakistan, the BJP in power would be much less constrained.

The front cover of Vajpayee by Shakti Sinha published by Penguin Random House India, 368 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.
The front cover of Vajpayee by Shakti Sinha published by Penguin Random House India, 368 pages, 599.

The news from Pakistan was somewhat different. (then Prime Minister Nawaz) Sharif was seen as acting under economic compulsions, in addition to pressures from the US. After all, Pakistan was economically much weaker than India. There was appreciation that both leaders were aware of the limitations of confrontation. With this move, Nawaz Sharif was signalling a shift away from Kashmir and towards investments and trade, recognizing that resources should not be wasted on an arms race. There were concerns in both countries, more so in Pakistan, that signing the CTBT was a pre-condition for lifting economic sanctions.

What made things worse for Sharif, though, was that in terms of Pakistan’s power structure, his position was weak. As a Pakistani commentator, Rasheed Rahman, bluntly explained, ‘The terms of “endearment” between the military and civilian spheres, are still heavily loaded in favour of the former.’ According to him, and to the agreement of many, none of the civilian governments had established that they hold power, ‘and not merely occupy offices’. The Pakistan Army had a powerful instrument of ensuring this, which was that the electoral process was less than credible. This instrument is as potent at present as it was two decades ago, with the electoral victory of Imran Khan in 2018 a powerful reminder of it, if any was needed.

With the confirmation of Vajpayee’s Lahore visit, there was palpable excitement, and unrealistic expectation, in the air. It was said that Sharif would be visiting Delhi for the India–Pakistan Test match due in a couple of days. That the visit did not happen was understandable. But Vajpayee did go to the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium in Delhi, met both the teams, spent some time watching the match and later hosted a reception for the teams at 7 RCR. On that day, I enjoyed my conversation with Raj Singh Dungarpur, the then president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, about cricketers of yore, including the American fast bowler John King, who scored over one thousand runs and took over a hundred wickets in one season playing for an English county in the early twentieth century.

Slowly, the officialdom got into the act. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) hailed the proposed Lahore initiative as a path-breaking exercise, as something that ‘will be one more manifestation of India’s abiding desire to build peaceful, friendly and co-operative relationship with Pakistan’. Vajpayee would become first Indian PM to visit Pakistan since Rajiv Gandhi’s visit for the SAARC summit in 1988. At the same time, the MEA also cautioned that Pakistan was yet to convey its acceptance, or rejection, of the proposed dates (17–20 February) for the meeting between the foreign secretaries of both countries. A series of meetings at the foreign-secretary level had been mandated at the Vajpayee–Sharif talks in New York in September 1998.

Excerpted from Vajpayee: The Years That Changed India by Shakti Sinha with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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