Many ups and downs in ties with Pakistan

In 2003, Mr. Vajpayee undertook a famous visit to the Kashmir Valley and reached out to the people there.

New Delhi: Former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s tenure as Prime Minister from 1998 to 2004 was marked by several fluctuations in ties with Pakistan. His first bold move just weeks after assuming office in 1998 was the Pokhran nuclear explosions in May that year to test India’s nuclear deterrence. The tests provoked a furious reaction from Pakistan, which also carried out nuclear explosions of its own. It also led to sanctions imposed by the US on both countries.

But just a few months later, in February, 1999, in an equally dramatic outreach to Pakistan, Mr Vajpayee undertook what is famously known as the “Lahore Bus Yatra” and boarded a bus with an eminent delegation that drove to Lahore.

The famous meeting between Mr Vajpayee and then Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif sought to herald a fine phase in ties. But it was actually one that preceded the storm.

In May that year, New Delhi realised that Pakistani infiltrators — that included Pakistani troops — had occupied positions atop the icy peaks of Kargil. India mounted a huge but localised successful military offensive with its Army and Air Force to evict the infiltrators which was achieved by July, 1999.

But other challenges lay in wait. In December that year, a flight of the erstwhile Indian Arlines was hijacked in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu and later flown to the city of Kandahar in Afghanistan, which was then under Taliban rule. The Vajpayee government subsequently released dreaded terrorists as demanded by the hijackers in order to secure the release of the hostage passengers on board the aircraft. It was one of the most trying periods of Mr Vajpayee’s tenure.

Mr Vajpayee then made another attempt to improve ties with Pakistan, which was then led by its Army Chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf — ironically, the architect of the Kargil intrusion — who had deposed Mr Sharif in a military coup. It led to Gen. Musharraf’s visit to India for the Agra Summit in 2001 that was widely seen as a disaster. But things went further downhill when a terror attack took place on the Indian Parliament in December that year. This led to national outrage and one of the biggest mobilisations of the Indian Army in 2001-02 on the border with Pakistan in what was known as Operation Parakram.

In 2003, Mr. Vajpayee undertook a famous visit to the Kashmir Valley and reached out to the people there. He underlined his vision of “Kashmiriyat, Insaniyat (humanity) and Jumhuriyat (democracy)”. The move won the hearts of the people in the valley. Mr. Vajpayee once again reached out to Pakistan as well. This led to what is seen as a a golden period in ties with Pakistan, marked by a ceasefire with Pakistan on the LoC and the visit of the Indian cricket team there in 2004 marked by much bonhomie. Later that year, Mr Vajpayee lost power in the 2004 polls but the bonhomie in ties with Pakistan continued broadly till the time Gen. Musharraf was in power and ended with the horrific Mumbai terror attack of 2008.

Mr Vajpayee also endeavoured to improve ties with China, making a historic visit to China in 2003.

Over two decades before he became Prime Minister, Mr Vajpayee also served as the external affairs minister in 1977 when the Janata Party government assumed office. During the next couple of years, there was a marked improvement in ties with both Pakistan and China. He also made headlines for speaking in Hindi at the UN General Assembly during that tenure.


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