Atal Behari Vajpayee is the visionary who saw tomorrow

Bengaluru: Atal Behari Vajpayee’s ability to seize the moment and turn it to his advantage, captivating his audience with the power of both poetry and prose was never in doubt; his oratory legendary, the long pause before delivering the punch line, his leitmotif. 

But at the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore on February 19, 1999, Pakistan’s eponymous monument to its creation, the statesman-poet did more than that. He reduced every Pakistani in that gathering, from hardened diplomats and Lahore’s socialites as well as the ordinary Lahori, to tears as he promised that Indian tanks would never roll into Pakistan again. There wasn’t a dry eye in that audience. He didn’t know that Pakistan’s army chief had already put Kargil into play.

Arriving in a bus just hours before, alongside his close friends and advisers, National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra and external affairs minister Jaswant Singh, and of course, Bollywood’s Dev Anand, there was no missing the Indian Army tanks from the 1965 war, that still sit on the outskirts of the Punjab capital, and served as a daily reminder of their ‘untrustworthy’ neighbour.

Few know however that the seed for the Lahore summit was planted in Colombo, where within minutes of meeting Pakistan’s young prime minister Nawaz Sharif in the Sri Lankan capital on the sidelines of the Saarc summit, Prime Minister Vajpayee quickly realized that this was probably a man that India could do business with. They sent their aides away and as Mr Sharif admitted to me, in an interview at his London home in 2006, they met alone and spoke for another half an hour before entrusting the ‘Wagah to Lahore bus diplomacy’ plan to their aides.

In an interview at his Park Lane residence in London in 2006, he described Vajpayee and himself as “the architect of peace.” 

Mr Sharif objected very strongly in that same interview to Prime Minister Vajpayee reaching out to his arch-enemy, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, barely two years later to host a India-Pakistan summit in Agra, which unlike Lahore, did not see an agreement, and ended badly. 

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